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Virgin Galactic finally reaches space, by one definition

Capitalism in space: By one of the definitions of where space begins, Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo Unity finally reached space for the first time during a test flight today.

During a flight test today, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo burned its engine for 60 seconds and reached an altitude of 271,268 (51.37 miles/82.7 km), which put the vehicle into space for the first time according to one definition of the boundary.

Pilots C.J. Sturkow and Mark Stucky deployed the spacecraft’s feather system — twin tail booms that re-configure the ship for re-entry — after reaching a top speed of Mach 2.9. They glided the vehicle back to a safe landing on Runway 12-30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California’s High Desert.

The U.S military initially defined space as beginning at 50 miles altitude. Later the international definition defining space as beginning at 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) became more accepted. In recent years there has been a push to accept the U.S. military’s older definition (partly I think generated by Virgin Galactic itself). Truth is, the U.S. military’s definition actually makes more sense, since it is possible to orbit a satellite at 50 miles, for short periods.

The pressure to change however does suggest that Unity might not be capable of reaching 62 miles.

Regardless, this flight culminates fourteen years of effort at Richard Branson s company to produce a reusable suborbital spaceship that can fly in space. It appears they have finally done it. Whether it will be reliable enough to fly repeatedly, with commercial passengers, remains to be seen. Moreover, the commercial landscape has changed considerably during those fourteen years. Had they flown a decade ago, as Branson repeatedly predicted, they would have been the only game in town. That is no longer the case. They now have a competitor, Blue Origin with its suborbital New Shepard spaceship, and affordable commercial orbital flights are just around the corner.

Still, Virgin Galactic’s achievement here is significant. They have built a spaceship that has taken humans to space (and can do it again), and they have done it with private funds.

Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!


From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.


“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.


All editions are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all book vendors, with the ebook priced at $5.99 before discount. The ebook can also be purchased direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit, in which case you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


Autographed printed copies are also available at discount directly from me (hardback $24.95; paperback $14.95; Shipping cost for either: $5.00). Just email me at zimmerman @ nasw dot org.


  • Kyle

    So how can Virgin get their two pilots into space without NASA requiring them to do 7 unmanned launches but SpaceX cannot?

  • Kyle: I suspect a bit of sarcasm on your part, but I must note that NASA is not buying Virgin Galactic’s services, has given it no money, and so it has no say on what they do.

  • Kirk

    Bob, you are certainly right that NASA isn’t paying for their own personnel to fly, so they weren’t setting safety requirements, but NASA actually did buy Virgin Galactic services for this flight. I don’t know the payload details, but here is a Jeff Foust tweet from this morning: “Branson thanking NASA for flying payloads on this flight. First revenue generating flight for VG.”

  • Edward

    Virgin Galactic has joined Blue Origin in flying payloads on their suborbital test flights. For decades, sounding rockets have flown similar payloads to space from Wallops Virginia (From which Northrop Grumman/Orbital fly to the ISS) and White Sands New Mexico. These two companies are now able to provide similar services, perhaps for lower costs.

  • Col Beausabre

    Virgin Galactic has a different concept – the Hot Air Propulsion System

    As far as NASA not being involved, probably true. But I bet the FAA is. And at this stage you can bet they rate it as “Experimental” – and it has to be clearly labeled as such on the vehicle

    – which means, no, zero, nada, nitchevo paying passengers until it the FAA certifies it. And that means….test flights, and paper work, mountains of paperwork.

    14 CFR 91.319 – Aircraft having experimental certificates: Operating limitations..

    (a) No person may operate an aircraft that has an experimental certificate –

    (1) For other than the purpose for which the certificate was issued; or

    (2) Carrying persons or property for compensation or hire.

  • m d mill

    The original engine concept for this rocket was novel to me…spraying a liquid chemical into a “rubber” coated chamber resulting in a controllable solid fuel engine.
    Is this still in use, and have the problems been solved??
    Has there been any word on this from Virgin Galactic??

  • Hybrid motors have been around for a long time in hobby and amateur rocketry. It’s what SpaceShipOne used. The problem is they don’t scale up real well: the “green” benefits are illusory (you’re literally burning rubber) and any safety advantages over a pure liquid become negligible at those sizes.

  • wayne

    Where is the complete, un-cut, un-edited, un-produced, un-redacted, un-choreographed film, of this launch, with some telemetry??
    All I’m seeing are some short clips.

    [>It’s a toy.]

  • Kirk

    Here is info on the NASA payloads: Four NASA-sponsored experiments set to launch on Virgin Galactic spacecraft [Space Daily, 2018-12-13, by Leslie Williams for AFRC News]

  • Edward

    m d mill asked: “Is this still in use, and have the problems been solved??
    My understanding is that they moved away from the rubber as fuel, but the problem that they had seems to still be unsolved, otherwise they probably would have gone to 100 km to declare victory.

    One of the many problems that rocket engines have is that they have a natural frequency, similar to an organ pipe. With solid fuel engines, including hybrids, that frequency constantly changes, and can drop into the range of resonance frequencies of the rocket or spacecraft structure or of the human passengers. This can have catastrophic or deadly consequences.

    Virgin Galactic had been suggesting that it would try injecting helium in order to bring the natural frequency back up to acceptable levels, but that would result in reduced engine performance and a maximum altitude below 100 km. I would not be surprised to learn that this is what they did in this test run.

  • pzatchok

    Why do they not just use a liquid fuel engine?
    or a combination of an onboard liquid fuel engine and strap on jetisonable solid boosters or JTOW packs.

    I have an idea why but its a stupid idea.
    He wants to launch it from any large airport in the world.
    It will never use LOX/any other liquid for the engines and the craft will never be classified as a spacecraft but forever stay a plane.
    He is trying to get around all import export regulations and technology limits. And fully liquid fuel rocket engines are import/export limited around the world.

    He can not buy solid rockets in half the world and he can not export to or import them either.

    But he can cheaply import/export rubber lined engine casings.

  • m d mill

    So, if it could be made to work it would probably reduce engine costs for this type of limited flight…that was the hope. Liquid rockets are difficult and expensive (relatively), solids are uncontrollable and still basically a bomb in a tube. I tend to like hybrid designs, but often they produce hybrid problems as well.

    And they are still asking a quarter of a million dollars per passenger. I think I’ll go to disneyland, watch the Imax-3D Hubble repair documentary and save the other $249000!

  • pzatchok

    You would think that with passengers willing to pay a quarter of a million dollars a ride they would be able to fly to the launch area.

    Virgin could build a nice hotel and make it a three day high end event with the flight being the culmination.

  • Edward

    Good article, which brings up old discussions.

    What defines the edge of space has become important once again, because it seems that Virgin Galactic cannot make it to the current generally accepted definition.

    But other questions could also arise. For instance, what constitutes an astronaut? Isn’t that a job title rather than a passenger title? It is the difference between me being an aviator or a passenger after flying on a commercial (or military, for that matter) aircraft. Even the term aviator can be a bit nebulous, as the pilot is certainly an aviator, and the flight engineer and navigator are also considered aviators. Both are also responsible for the operation and flight of an aircraft. But is being employed on an airplane enough to be an aviator? Would we consider the flight attendants as aviators? If not, should we use the term “astronaut” for space tourists who ride in spacecraft with no operational responsibilities at all?

    However, if just being an employee on an aircraft does not make one an aviator, does just being an employee on a spacecraft or space station, rather than flying, operating, or controlling it, make one an astronaut?

    Or am I just being a buzzkill?

  • wayne

    “Sir” Richard Branson– elitist, master-mind, globalist, tax-evader, european-union lover, hard core Trump-Hater, outrageous liar, who opposes Brexit.
    Socialism for everyone except him. In the Alternate Universe, he’d be dragged from his castle….

    “Hard Brexit would be more damaging than WWII: Sir Richard Branson”

  • wayne

    “Presentation of the Karman separation line, used as the boundary separating Aeronautics and Astronautics”

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