Tourism rocket ship reaches space

MOJAVE, Calif. — Virgin Galactic’s tourism spaceship climbed more than 50 miles high above Cal­i­for­nia’s Mojave Desert on Thurs­day, reaching for the first time what the company considers the boundary of space.

The rocket ship hit an altitude of 51 miles before beginning its gliding descent, said mission official Enrico Palermo. It landed on a runway minutes later.

“We made it to space!” Palermo exclaimed.

The supersonic flight takes Virgin Galactic closer to turning the long-delayed dream of commercial space tourism into reality. The company aims to take paying customers on the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said there will be more test flights and if all goes well, he will 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,” he said, describing Thursday as one of the best days of his life.

Virgin Galactic considers 50 miles the boundary of space because that is the distance used by the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. agencies. That’s different from a long-held view that the boundary is at 62 miles. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides noted that re­cent research favors the lower altitude.

Whitesides said a review of the data from the test flight will last into the new year.

“This is a huge step forward and once we look at the data we’ll see what that pathway is,” he said.

At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity flew to an altitude near 43,000 feet before releasing the craft. The spaceship ignited its rocket engine and it quickly hurtled upward and out of sight of viewers on the ground. The spaceship reached Mach 2.9, nearly three times the speed of sound.

The two test pilots — Mark “Forger” Stucky and former NASA astronaut Rick “CJ” Sturckow — will be awarded commercial astronaut wings, Federal Aviation Administration official Bailey Edwards said.

“It was a great flight and I can’t wait to do it again,” said Sturckow, who flew on the space shuttle four times.