Virgin Galactic just reached the edge of space

One small step for man, one giant leap for space tourism

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Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft just arrived in space for the first time ever, an achievement marking huge step forward in the path to private space tourism. The occasion also marked the first time a US commercial human flight has made it to space since 2011, when NASA’s Space Shuttle program shut down.

The company’s SpaceShipTwo took off in the early hours of Thursday morning from the Mojave test centre in California. The vessel was released by its carrier plane at around 43,000 feet, shooting off to skim the edge of space at a lofty 271,000 feet.

At the helm was pilot Mark Stucky alongside NASA astronaut Frederick Sturckow, with hordes of the duo’s family and fellow employees watching from the ground. Virgin boss Richard Branson was on site, telling reporters after takeoff: “I’m not supposed to say this, but hopefully we will go to space today [...] Hopefully we’ll have a bit of magic in the next couple of hours.”

As for Virgin’s space program, it has garnered interest from a slew of high-profile individuals. Justin Bieber is reported to have put down a deposit to fly to space with the firm, as well as Leonardo DiCaprio.

If all this talk of space tourism is whetting your celestial appetite, you’ll have to start saving; a 90-minute flight to space with Virgin will set you back $250,000 (£200,000). If you do have a inconceivably large pot of disposable income sitting around, you won’t have to wait long. Test flights with Blue Origin employees are expected to begin in 2019.

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When it comes to private space travel, Virgin has competition. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is a major rival, announcing in September that it would fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon on its Big Falcon Rocket. The testosterone is almost palpable.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos has also thrown his hat into the ring with his aerospace company, Blue Origin. Founded in 2000, the company plans to start commercial service in 2019, and wields a pretty formidable motto: “Step by Step, Ferociously”. There’s that testosterone creeping in again...

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Despite the frenetic competition, prices aren’t diminishing yet: a gander to space on the company’s New Shepard rocket is reported to set customers back $200,000 – $300,000 (£160,000 – £240,000). The average price for a semi-detached house in the UK is £225,000, so I’ll just leave that there...

Next year looks set to be the year of private space tourism, then, with companies touting 2019 as the year that commercial services properly, er, take off. For now, Virgin Galactic is celebrating a hard-fought triumph. After 2014 saw Unity’s predecessor crash, killing one of its pilots and seriously injuring another, the company’s first foray back appears to have been a resolute success. Hell, it’s even updated its Twitter bio, which now proudly reads “The world’s first commercial spaceline.” Musk and Bezos must be reeling.

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