Virgin Galactic reaches space for first time
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, flew higher than it ever has before on Thursday, surpassing what the US Air Force considers the boundary of space, and marking the first manned flight to space from US soil since 2011.The brief, suborbital flight -- with two pilots on board -- was a key milestone for the company headed by British tycoon Richard Branson, who is striving to send tourists to space at a cost of $250,000 per seat. No spacecraft with people on board has taken off from US soil since the American space shuttle program ended, as scheduled, seven years ago. Since then, the world's space agencies have relied on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. In the meantime, a burgeoning commercial space industry is rushing to close the gap, as companies hurry to complete spacecraft that can carry astronauts and tourists into microgravity. "Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space," Branson said in a statement afterward. "This is a momentous day and I could not be more proud of our teams who together have opened a new chapter of space exploration." Virgin Galactic's spaceship did not launch on a rocket but took off attached to an airplane from Mojave, California. After reaching a certain altitude, higher than 43,000 feet (13,100 meters), it fired its rocket motors for 60 seconds and made it to a peak height, or apogee, of 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers). "We made it to space," the company said on Twitter. The commonly accepted international definition of space is 62 miles high (100 kilometers), but the US Air Force considers the space boundary to be a bit lower, at 50 miles. Virgin Galactic has said it would use the US Air Force's definition of space as its standard. "What we witnessed today is more compelling evidence that commercial space is set to become one of the 21st century's defining industries," said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company. "Reusable vehicles built and operated by private companies are about to transform our business and personal lives in ways which are as yet hard to imagine."