Sir Richard Branson came one step closer to realizing his ambition of charging people money to hurl them into space, when his firm Virgin Galactic successfully completed a third and highest test flight of its SpaceShip Two spacecraft.
SpaceShip Two reached a record height of 71,000 feet on Friday, and a speed of 1.4 Mach (1.4 times the speed of sound) during the flight, which was manned by pilot David Mackay and co-pilot Mark Stucky. The Los Angeles Times explains how the flight works:
During the test, SpaceShipTwo was taken to about 46,000 feet by a carrier aircraft and dropped like a bomb. After a short free fall, test pilots Dave Mackay and Mark Stucky engaged the hybrid rocket motor, powered by nitrous oxide and a rubber compound, for about 16 seconds, at which point SpaceShipTwo accelerated to Mach 1.4.
The test flight took off from California's Mojave Air and Space Port, and the SpaceShip 2 flew for ten minutes on its own before landing. You can watch the voyage in the video below:
Ultimately, the spacecraft is set to take one pilot and six passengers into outer space after it is launched from a carrier craft, a goal that Branson has optimistically promised to reach this year. The travelers will leave earth's atmosphere, experiencing weightlessness and seeing the planet's curvature before returning to orbit and landing on earth. They will also be privy to the terrifying process of leaving Earth's boundary, which Mackay describes as similar to the kick after firing up a race car, but "unrelenting... it's smooth, but it's wild because of the acceleration." Compared to Mars One's plan to send people to Mars for the rest of their lives, this is a pretty conservative way to experience outer space.
There's still a long way to go, however. Although the spacecraft reached its highest peak ever on this last test flight, 13 miles, it didn't come close to reaching the height required to exit earth's atmosphere. That's 61 miles up. (Even Felix Baumgartner made it 24 miles up before jumping out of a balloon.) Still, it's come a long way since aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and his company launched SpaceShipOne in 2004, the first private manned spacecraft, which prompted the ongoing collaboration between Rutan and Branson.
The company reports 680 reservations for the expected flights, including from celebrities like Katy Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio, and aspiring astronaut Lance Bass. The tickets cost $250,000, but deposits are refundable, so don't worry about getting stuck with the bill if you change your mind.