Virgin Galactic completed its longest rocket-powered flight ever on Thursday, taking a step ahead in the nascent business of space tourism.
The two pilots on board Virgin Galactic's spacecraft Unity became the company's first astronauts. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson was on hand to watch the historic moment.
"Many of you will know how important the dream of space travel is to me personally. Ever since I watched the moon landings as a child I have looked up to the skies with wonder," Branson said after the flight. "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 said the test flight reached an altitude of 51.4 miles, or nearly 83 kilometers. The U.S. military and NASA consider pilots who have flown above 80 kilometers to be astronauts. The Federal Aviation Administration announced on Thursday that pilots Mark Stucky and C.J Sturckow would receive commercial astronaut wings at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. early next year.
Lifted by the jet-powered mothership Eve, the spacecraft Unity took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert. Upon reaching an altitude above 40,000 feet, the carrier aircraft released Unity. The two-member crew then piloted the spacecraft in a roaring burn which lasted 60 seconds. The flight pushed Unity to a speed of Mach 2.9, nearly three times the speed of sound, as it screamed into a climb toward the edge of space.
After performing a slow backflip in microgravity, Unity turned and glided back to land at Mojave. This was the company's fourth rocket-powered flight of its test program.
Unity is the name of the spacecraft built by The Spaceship Company, which Branson also owns. This rocket design is officially known as SpaceShipTwo (SS2).
Unity also carried four NASA-funded payloads on this mission. The agency said the four technology experiments "will collect valuable data needed to mature the technologies for use on future missions."