Beardie billionaire Richard Branson saw his commercial space venture move a step closer to reality yesterday when the company's SpaceShipTwo crashed through the sound barrier and no one died.
Branson's Virgin Galactic ignited its rocket motor in mid-flight for the first time and sped to Mach 1.2, faster than sound and reached about 56,000 feet in altitude.
The test took place over the Mojave Desert and was the biggest milestone in Virgin Galactic's 8 1/2-year endeavor to be the world's first commercial space liner.
Branson wants to take scores of paying customers into space for a brief journey. However, it is taking a jolly long time. Branson wanted to see the first space tourists in 2007 but had to push that date back to 2014.
Branson told the assorted throngs that he never thought it would take this long, but it was worth the wait. Now the plane has accomplished supersonic flight, the company says it is just about ready to take the next step and there are an awful lot of exciting things to come.
Virgin Galactic still needs to clear regulatory hurdles, particularly satisfying safety concerns with the Federal Aviation Administration. We guess they want pilots to take their shoes off before they board the plane.
During the test, SpaceShipTwo was taken to about 47,000 feet by a carrier aircraft, and approximately 45 minutes into the flight, it was dropped.
Pilot Mark Stucky and co-pilot Mike Alsbury engaged the hybrid rocket motor for 16 seconds, at which point SpaceShipTwo's speed reached Mach 1.2.
The entire flight test lasted a little more than 10 minutes, ending in a smooth landing in the Mojave.
Virgin Galactic uses a WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft that will fly with the reusable SpaceShipTwo rocket plane under its wing to 50,000 feet, where the spaceship will separate and blast off.
When the rocket motor engages, it will power the spaceship to nearly 2,500 miles per hour and take the pilots and up to six passengers to the edge of space, more than 60 miles above the Earth's surface.
For $200,000 each passengers will reach a suborbital altitude, passengers experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. Then they will reenter the atmosphere and glide back to the runway.
So far Virgin Galactic has accepted more than $70 million in deposits from about 580 reservations made by people who are interested in the ride.