back to article Virgin Galactic test flight reaches space for the first time, lugging NASA cargo in place of tourists

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo took its first trip into space today as the company launched the reusable rocket-powered craft on its fourth test flight above the Mojave desert in southern California. The spacecraft (for that is what it now is) hit Mach 2.9 and reached 271,268ft (about 82.7km) above the Earth, before beginning …

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  1. PerlyKing
    Go

    Talking cargo

    I prefer "self-loading cargo" :-)

    Anyhow, well done chaps!

    1. Alister Silver badge

      Re: Talking cargo

      "Self-loading Freight" is the phrase I'm most familiar with.

  2. Flakk Silver badge
    Trollface

    Talking Cargo?

    As well as ballast to represent paying passengers (or "talking cargo" as one commercial pilot memorably described those sat at the back of the aircraft)

    Says the extremely well-compensated bus driver.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: Talking Cargo?

      Be that as it may, that bus driver needs to know a tad more than just how to slow down and park at the curb.

  3. Detective Emil
    Meh

    80km?

    I look forward to Virgin Trains claiming that they're on time by saying that the destination is now 20% nearer than it used to be.

    1. redpawn Silver badge

      Re: 80km?

      Virgin Trains are both on time and traveling in the lower reaches of outer space.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: 80km?

        <nit>It's not "outer" space until you're outside the atmosphere - which is a lot further out than the Karmen line (That's just the point where wings no longer work).

        The sky is still blue(ish) at that point. It doesn't go black until 100 miles up.

        1. ridley

          Re: 80km?

          The ISS is affected by the atmosphere and it is, what, 400km up?

          Every so often it has to use small motors to boost its orbit as the atmospheric drag has lowered the orbit.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: 80km?

      It is a bit naff, not to mention sounding a bit desperate, having to try to convince everyone that "space" is now so much nearer that your spacecraft high altitude aircraft can actually reach it.

      1. Gene Cash Silver badge

        Re: 80km?

        > high altitude aircraft

        Not even close. The highest jet-powered/non-rocket-powered aircraft so far is the Ye-266, which is a modified MIG-25 that reached 37.65km.

        1. Lotaresco Silver badge
          Headmaster

          Re: 80km?

          "Not even close. The highest jet-powered/non-rocket-powered aircraft so far is the Ye-266, which is a modified MIG-25 that reached 37.65km."

          SpaceShip One piloted by Brian Binnie reached 112,010 m (367,487 ft), quite a bit higher than the 37.65 km achieved by the Mikoyan Gurevitch E-266M. SpaceShip Two should be able to reach the same height as SpaceShip One, although probably not when full of paying guests. SpaceShip One currently holds the altitude record for a manned aeroplane.

  4. NoneSuch

    Walking Baggage

    Airlines use that term for passengers.

    $250K + travel expenses for slight weightlessness then back on the ground ten minutes later... Will think about it

    Vomit Comets are cheaper ($5K a pop, or rent the entire plane for $165K) and give you a lot more less gravity.

    https://www.gozerog.com/

    http://www.airzerog.com/en/

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Walking Baggage

      Upvoted for the phrase "a lot more less gravity"

    2. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Walking Baggage

      "$250K + travel expenses for slight weightlessness then back on the ground ten minutes later... Will think about it"

      You are off by 10%, it was 11 minutes from apogee to landing. Of course, it took about an hour to get to 43,000' where they dropped the spaceship and one minute of boost and some coasting. Call it closer to $100,000/hour. The folks in the back get to go through some "training" before the flight too.

      What are cinema tickets and snacks going for these days for a family of four? Close?

  5. Wellyboot Silver badge

    Lower & slower than a V2

    After years of development that says it all really.

    VG => Giving a dummy a few seconds weightlessness in a 82km suborbital hop.

    Space-X => The dummy is in a Tesla Roadster in solar orbit deliberately aimed to avoid Mars.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Lower & slower than a V2

      "VG => Giving a dummy a few seconds weightlessness in a 82km suborbital hop."

      What they're hoping to achieve is several minutes of weightlessness in a somewhat higher suborbital hop, using a re-usable people-carrying pressurised vehicle much, much more reliable than an A4/V2. I mean, A4/V2s couldn't even re-enter reliably and all they were meant to do was carry a warhead.

      Development has to be incremental to achieve the hoped-for reliability. You expand the flight envelope one step at a time, checking everything all the time. Whether or not Virgin Galactic's intended flights are worth doing is arguable, but I don't see that one could reasonably suggest that the technical achievement demonstrated so far is anything other than quite impressive - albeit severely behind schedule.

      1. The First Dave

        Re: Lower & slower than a V2

        Maybe Concorde couldn't have reached this high (I'm sure it never tried) but it could go just as fast, (and without needing a helping hand) roughly sixty years ago, so I don't see much technological progress overall.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Lower & slower than a V2

          It's just a test flight in the program, not an attempt to achieve its full performance yet Mr Negative.

          V2 slammed into the ground at some mach something. It didn't come gliding in and land on its wheels, then get turned around to go up again. The Mercury/Redstones didn't get reflown either.

          UK has launched hundreds of Skylark rockets over decades, Skylarks are capable of of 200-400km altitude, without humans on board and need to recover the vehicle it's no big deal.

          Nor did V2 or Skylark have to keep human occupants alive.Human flight vs non-human flight is a world of difference.

      2. Brangdon

        Re: reliability ?

        They'll never get reliability so long as they use human pilots. Both their main rivals, SpaceX and Blue Origin, understand this and use automated flight. Virgin Galactic have already killed people from this mistake.

  6. Pete 2 Silver badge

    You need to get a bus for the last part of the journey

    > The Kármán line, at 100km, has commonly been regarded as where space starts, but Virgin

    > Galactic will point to discussions within the scientific community about revising this figure downwards

    > to 80km.

    It looks like Branson has learned something from RyanAir, which has contributed some "original" thinking regarding where the actual destination is!

    It also makes you wonder if that will reduce the cost of the fare by 20% too? Or is this just a sneaky way of raising the price.

  7. steelpillow Silver badge
    Holmes

    82.7 = 100, really?

    "The Kármán line, at 100km, has commonly been regarded as where space starts."

    So, not actually reached space, then.

    I notice that the BBC swallowed the same guff and have since watered down their headline. Ho-hum.

  8. Alan_Peery

    Sorry, not space yet

    The border for space is 100 km.

    While the US originally defined space as 50 miles up, no one seriously regards that as the boundary any longer. The US astronauts who went up under the original definition are grandfathered into the "astronaut" space, because anything else would be unkind.

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: Sorry, not space yet

      This was just a test flight. A progressive step towards its full performance.

      This spacecraft is a development descendant of SpaceShipOne which won the Ansari X-Prize going to 122km and mach 3.5.

  9. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    Please confirm that Spacecraft has external "Yeeeehaaaa!" klaxon for overflights of doubter competition.

    1. steelpillow Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Bah!

      in space nobody can hear you yeeeehaaaa!

  10. I&I

    Terminological inexactitudes

    Outer space? Inner space? How about “middle space”? At least the branding is on a hyperbolic trajectory. Brilliant vision, teamwork, perseverance, tech and achievement regardless.

    1. SWCD

      Re: Terminological inexactitudes

      You wonder what it'd take to blow the skirt up of some of the less-impressed posters - I don't get any human who doesn't think the achievement is spectacular.

      If I had a spare quarter of a mil, I'd be up there tomorrow. Be in the first handful of people who've seen our home from above? Yes, please. Bothered if it only goes X far up? Nope, don't give a monkeys.

      Seeing for real the possibility there's something else out there must leave you in awe and with a tear in each eye. If the price has halved by the time I retire, the house is sold and I'm away. Sorry about the inheritance kids.

      1. GruntyMcPugh Silver badge

        Re: Terminological inexactitudes

        @SWCD

        If I had the spare cash, I'd have done the 'Edge of Space' flight in the MiG 25, and be happy with that I reckon.

      2. Cuddles Silver badge

        Re: Terminological inexactitudes

        "You wonder what it'd take to blow the skirt up of some of the less-impressed posters - I don't get any human who doesn't think the achievement is spectacular."

        What achievement? Rockets capable of doing better than this have been in use since at least WW2. Multiple countries routinely launch rockets not just into orbit but to land on other planets, and even private enterprise has started hitting orbit as a matter of routine. There are student groups launching rockets almost as capable in their spare time. An online IT rag sent a paper aeroplane not too much lower for goodness sake.

        "Be in the first handful of people who've seen our home from above?"

        First handful? If this was still the 1960s maybe, but we're a bit past that now. I completely agree that this would be a cool sight-seeing trip for those who can afford it. But in terms of actual achievement it's about equivalent to catching the train up Snowdon - trains were impressive engineering when they were invented but we've had them going higher and faster for quite a while now, and taking one to somewhere people have been visiting for decades just isn't a big deal. There are plenty of spectacular achievements around that absolutely do blow my skirt up. But when we're landing on comets, bringing back bits of asteroids, looking at multiple probes still working while leaving the Solar System nearly 50 years after launch... finding yourself arguing about whether your rocket reached space because you can't even reach the generally agreed border is not something most people would consider spectacular.

        1. SWCD

          Re: Terminological inexactitudes

          The spectacular part is it's coming within the realms of possibility for an ordinary human, be it just a rich one at the moment. Or do we just knock it all on the head because it was done in the 60's, by countries with infinite budgets - we just stop there as it doesn't approach what's been done before? How does any of that help me or you take a look up there?

          What an exciting interview you'd have given say being the first on Concorde - "Well, bit shit really wasn't it, RAF been going that fast for ages haven't they"

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Terminological inexactitudes

          "What achievement? Rockets capable of doing better than this have been in use since at least WW2. Multiple countries routinely launch rockets not just into orbit but to land on other planets, and even private enterprise has started hitting orbit as a matter of routine."

          Apart from the Russians and Chinese, no one is offering rides to humans. Those that may do, are not talking about fee paying passengers for anything close to 1/4mill just yet. Yes, it's just a rich mans rollercoaster ride at this stage, but then so were the first cars.

  11. spold Bronze badge

    Of course it was 30 pounds to reserve a standard seat in advance

    1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge

      Only valid on the booked departure slot though.

      And that departure didn't happen.

  12. Milton Silver badge

    Superficial Marketing Tosh = Virgin on the Ridiculous

    What a pity all the money Branson is wasting on his "Look how high I can pee" stunt isn't going instead to an outfit like Reaction Engines, who have actual research and serious technology progressing towards a Single Stage To Orbit spaceplane and a hypersonic airliner (both using variants of the amazing SABRE engines).

    Instead Branson—absolutely typically for him—is going to exploit a few rich idiots who want "Astronaut" badges to stick on their shirts, many of whom probably don't realise that their free-fall is merely a ballistic-lob artefact, that they're not going into orbit ... not going anywhere, in fact—except "quite high" and then back to the desert.

    Sums up the current era, doesn't it? A business like RE, employing serious, dedicated, highly expert engineers to build something truly advanced, revolutionary, useful and necessary has to struggle for funds and publicity; while a self-glorifying huckster shills an entirely useless and expensive stunt to enthral the morons. Also, it's likely to be exceptionally dangerous: the chances of airliner-type safety stats are vanishingly small. Branson's engineers must have told him this: how long does he expect his Buy-A-Really-Expensive-Badge business to work after the first tragedy?

    Perhaps to make it poetically modern, Branson, if he survives the first flight, can Twatt from 'space' "Ooh lookie I got my astronut badge—oops" and finish up with a vommicon.

    Sounds mean, I know: but look at the technology and the engineering. Things that might be acceptable for volunteer professionals are very much not ok for civilians, no matter how deep their wallets nor how many hundred pages of disclaimers and waivers they foolishly signed. This is not airline-level safety; not even close. (TBH, I'm astonished the authorities are letting this happen. Don't they have experts ...?)

    1. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Superficial Marketing Tosh = Virgin on the Ridiculous

      And we have Disneyland, fun fares and the London Eye. Bigger entertainments to fleece the marks. No shame in that. SRB is just raising the bar and the price of the ticket.

    2. Alister Silver badge

      Re: Superficial Marketing Tosh = Virgin on the Ridiculous

      Just to point out that Branson's endeavour is the only one so far to offer spaceflight (even if illusory) to "ordinary people" - in quotes because you have to be rich, Obvs - but by that I mean, not trained astronauts.

      Think back to the early days of powered flight, and that's exactly what happened, it was first touted as a rich plaything, before disseminating to the general public.

      Automobiles, too, were first and foremost a thing for rich people to play with, until mass-production became a thing.

      If you go further back, look at Richard Trevithick who offered rides behind his new steam locomotive on a circle of track, to those who could afford it.

      So don't be so disparaging, most of the innovations in transport have started this way, and it is a necessary step on the path to more widespread use.

      1. Tikimon Silver badge
        Meh

        Re: "Superficial Marketing Tosh" Virgin is hardly a pathfinder

        "So don't be so disparaging, most of the innovations in transport have started this way, and it is a necessary step on the path to more widespread use."

        I get where you're going, and agree. Problem is, this is not how space transport is starting. This kind of flight profile was done with the X-15 program decades ago. "Space transport" implies (to me anyway) that one transports something from Point A to Point B. Virgin's program is not Transport, it's merely an expensive carnival ride, where the loading and unloading are done at the same platform a few minutes apart with a thrill ride in the middle.

        That's ALL this project will ever be good for. Other companies are working on Transport, moving people and cargo from Earth to orbital destinations and sometimes bringing them back again. As far as speculative "deliver something to space and hand off to another ship" Space-X style rockets would do that better with less complexity and risk.

        1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

          Re: "Superficial Marketing Tosh" Virgin is hardly a pathfinder

          " it's merely an expensive carnival ride"

          Exactly. If Richard Trevithick == 1950/60s NASA, Virgin Galactic == whoever built the first roller coaster.

      2. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

        Re: Superficial Marketing Tosh = Virgin on the Ridiculous

        "If you go further back, look at Richard Trevithick who offered rides behind his new steam locomotive on a circle of track, to those who could afford it."

        So not much change there then, except the means of propulsion.

        You've never been all the way round the Circle Line? You haven't lived.

  13. Stuart Halliday

    170,800 feet is 52Km so hardly in Space even if the official Space line is brought down to 80Km.

    I for one would feel cheated if I bought a ticket and thought I could claim I'd been in Space.

    1. AIBailey
      FAIL

      The spacecraft (for that is what it now is) hit Mach 2.9 and reached 271,268ft (about 82.7km) above the Earth

      Did you read the whole article?

  14. Gene Cash Silver badge
    FAIL

    OTOH, regardless of "reaching space"

    It's the first American vehicle to exceed 50km since the Space Shuttles retired in 2011.

    Which is a sad record in and of itself.

    1. GruntyMcPugh Silver badge

      Re: OTOH, regardless of "reaching space"

      @Gene Cash

      You omitted 'manned' as the unmanned X-37B have been spending quite long periods in orbit.

  15. MachDiamond Silver badge

    Don't forget the other fallen

    3 people were killed during a ground nitrous oxide tanking test in development of Space Ship Two. That's four dead and they aren't even in commercial service yet.

    While the flight went pretty dang high, they still need to go higher and with 600kg of ballast (flight suit inserts). They flew some payloads for NASA on 12/13, but I haven't seen what those massed.

    The "scientific paper" came out suspiciously just a week before Virgin announcing they were going with that figure. 100km is the accepted definition of space for everything else although it's a very fungible concept. The atmosphere goes up and down so if you use it as a reference you have to adjust your definition by the hour. The 50mile space line was something in place (in the US) 70ish years ago. The big deal is they want to give everybody that rides the thing astronaut wings as part of their adventure and have them actually mean something. Like they really earned them any more than the pebble in their shoe will.

    1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Re: Don't forget the other fallen

      What surprises me that some of the surviving Mercury 13 are going along with this. They deserve better.

    2. Alister Silver badge

      Re: Don't forget the other fallen

      3 people were killed during a ground nitrous oxide tanking test in development of Space Ship Two. That's four dead and they aren't even in commercial service yet.

      How many people do you think died in developing aircraft to the point where they were commercially successful? How many people died before automobiles were generally safe to drive? How many people died building the railways?

      People die, it happens all the time. This generation seems to think any loss of life is unacceptable, and because of that, are needlessly risk averse.

      Earlier generations were more pragmatic.

      1. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

        Re: Don't forget the other fallen

        "People die, it happens all the time. This generation seems to think any loss of life is unacceptable, and because of that, are needlessly risk averse."

        You forget; in past generations it wasn't the shareholders (or the Pharaoh for that matter) who were expecting to do the dying.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not great marketing.

    Arguing this flight went to space will leave a lot of people thinking they won't got above 100km in the future.

  17. 0laf Silver badge
    FAIL

    Space, not quite as above and beyond as before

    Space = 100km

    Rocket can't reach it.

    Options:

    1> Make rocket go higher and cross 100km line

    2>Change definition of 'space' to one we can reach

    Which did they go for?

    1. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

      Re: Space, not quite as above and beyond as before

      Oh, USA has a long record of this.

      During the Gulf War 1 the Patriot missiles were not exactly hitting SCUDs. But it was OK; by the end of the war they had redefined "interception" as "being launched before the SCUD hit its target". Because it was important that the Israelis and Saudis didn't lose confidence.

      The British Lancaster bombing campaign in WW2 was also much less effective than claimed.

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