A Virgin Galactic rocket plane reached space on Thursday and returned safely to the California desert, capping off years of difficult testing to become the first US commercial human flight to reach space, reported Reuters.
The successful test flight ushers in a new era of civilian space travel that could kick off as soon as next year and billionaire Richard Branson believes he is months away from being one of the first people on the flight.
Two pilots and a mannequin named Annie, who was acting as a stand-in passenger, were on board. They were able to experience weightlessness and witness the curvature of the planet.
The rocket plane, called the VSS Unity, reached a height of 82 km above Earth before reentering the atmosphere at 2.5 times the speed of sound. It landed a few minutes later to cheers and applause, concluding roughly an hour’s journey.
Virgin Galactic is battling billionaire-backed ventures such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, to be the first to offer suborbital flights to fare-paying tourists.
Branson has personally put up $1 billion (around R14.1 billion) toward the roughly $1.3 billion development costs for Virgin’s space businesses. He told Reuters he viewed competition with Bezos and others as a race, though passenger safety was the top priority.
Nearly 700 people have already paid R393,000 to book the the 90-minute flight. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber are among those on the list. The company has also received about $80 million (R1.13 billion) in deposits from future astronauts, Branson said.
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