To Briefly Go: Billionaires Branson & Bezos Battle for Bragging Rights Where Few Have Gone Before

Richard Branson wears the SpaceShipTwo flight suit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • Fewer than 25 suborbital spaceflights have ever been conducted
  • Most suborbital launches were conducted with vehicles retired decades ago
  • No suborbital flight has ever carried a paying passenger
  • There is no agreement on what even constitutes a suborbital spaceflight

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

When Richard Branson and three Virgin Galactic employees strap into their seats aboard SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on Sunday, they will briefly go where not very many have gone before: suborbital space.

Of the 374 attempts to launch astronauts to space since Yuri Gagarin flew into Earth orbit 60 years ago, only 23 were suborbital flights. The majority of those launches were conducted during the 1960’s using vehicles that long ago became museum pieces. One ended with the loss of the spacecraft and its pilot. And two flights were unintentional ones involving vehicles being launched into Earth orbit.

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The Adventures of SpaceShipTwo: Inverted Flight, Wonky Gyros & an Impatient Billionaire

SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Nicholas Schmidle has an interesting profile of Virgin Galactic test pilot Mark Stucky in the New Yorker that sheds some light on what’s been going on at Richard Branson’s space company. I’ve excerpted some interesting passages below.

If you’ve been watching the videos of  SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity‘s first three powered flights and thinking to yourself, Gee, it looks like that thing really wants to roll…well, you’d be right. Here’s an account of the first flight on April 5.
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A Look at the History of Suborbital Spaceflight

Neil Armstrong with the X-15 on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

With Richard Branson once again predicting that Virgin Galactic will fly SpaeShipTwo into space before the end of the year, it seems like a good time to take a look at the history of suborbital spaceflight.

The number of manned suborbital flights varies depending upon the definition you use. The internationally recognized boundary is 100 km (62.1 miles), which is also known as the Karman line. The U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to any pilot who exceeded 80.5 km (50 miles).

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Boldly Going Where 14 Men Have Gone Before

For nearly a dozen years, Virgin Galactic has used the number of individuals who have flown into space as a target to shoot for once the company began suborbital space tourism service. Virgin promised to double the number, which was around 500 when the company launched in 2004, within the first year of operation. That year was originally targeted for 2007 in the confident days after the success of SpaceShipOne.

That goal has long since faded away, and it’s unlikely Virgin will double the number of space travelers during the first year. In any event, the number of space travelers cited by Virgin has always been a bit misleading. The company’s well heeled customers, who are paying upwards of $250,000 per flight, will actually be joining a much more elite group on their suborbital flights.

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SpaceShipTwo: Lessons Learned on the Commercial Space Frontier

SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

SpaceShipTwo had exploded.

At least that’s what it looked like from our vantage point at Jawbone Station on that fateful Halloween morning ten months ago. And that’s what it looked like in Ken Brown’s photos. Ken had been standing next to me, training his telephoto lens on the small spacecraft nine miles overhead.

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