Virgin Galactic’s tourism rose 50 miles (81 km) above the Earth, reaching the limits of outer space and inching closer to founder Richard Branson’s desire to send tourists into outer space. Sir Richard is in a race with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to send the first fee-paying passengers into space.
“Today, as I stood among this truly remarkable group of people, all of us with our eyes on the stars, we saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled,” Branson wrote in a blog post. “How on earth do I describe the feeling? Joy? Definitely! Relief? Emphatically! Exhilaration? Absolutely! But because I have a tendency to keep pushing forward – eager and impatient anticipation for everything yet to come.”
Space tourism could become in a reality as early as 2020. The firm’s SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket ship reached a height of over 80 km, which is considered to be the edge of space by the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. agencies — although varying heights are considered.
If everything goes according to plan, Virgin’s first tourists will take flight in around 18 months, Branson says. He added that there will be more test flights and if all goes well, he will be the first to take a ride before the public gets its chance.
“I believe that sometime in the second half of next year that we will start being able to put regular people up into space,” Branson said, describing Thursday as one of the best days of his life.
The two pilots are Mark “Forger” Stucky and former NASA astronaut Rick “CJ” Sturckow. They will be awarded commercial astronaut wings, Federal Aviation Administration official Bailey Edwards said.
Already on this test, more than 600 people have committed to pay about $250,000 for rides that will take some 90 minutes. However, these several minutes will bring a unique sensation of weightlessness as well as a view of the beautiful Earth from far above.
However, the endeavor isn’t only a commercial one — the spaceship will also be used for research. Already, on this test, the rocket carried a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger, as well as four research experiments for NASA.
Virgin isn’t alone in the commercial space race. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, in partnership with NASA, is planning crewed missions for early next year, and Jeff Bezos announced that Blue Origin plans to send its first crew to space in 2019.