Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo makes first powered flight

I talk a lot on this blog about advances in getting people into space.  But whether that's SpaceX and the Dragon or Russia and the Soyuz, it's a safe bet that neither you nor I will ever get a ride to space in one.  Does that mean we'll never go to space?  Maybe not.  Billionaire Richard Branson's eight and half year old company, Vigin Galactic, aims to put us right there in the action.  That goal took a major step forward today with the first successful rocket-powered flight of SpaceShipTwo, the first-ever comercial spaceliner.

SpaceShipTwo makes an historic first rocket-powered flight. One day soon you will be able to ride it into space. (Video credit: Virgin Galactic)

SpaceShipTwo launches in a way that's unique among rockets.  It starts by getting a ride up to your typical passenger jet cruising altitude aboard a carrier aircraft, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo.  Once at this altitude, the spacecraft is dropped from the plane, where it lights its rocket.  Since the Earth's atmosphere is densest on at ground level, this helps save fuel  That's important if these suborbital rides are to become more economical.

Today's test was a short one, with the rocket burn lasting only sixteen seconds. That was enough, however, to propel SpaceShipTwo past the sound barrier.  After reaching a maximum velocity of Mach 1.2, the engine was cut off and the craft glided back to Earth.  The puts the program on track to enter space by the end of this year.  Think Branson has any doubts about the safety of his spaceship?  I suspect not - he and his family plan to be onboard for that test.

Want to book your very own ticket to space?  You can - for a cool $200,000.  While that might seem like a lot (it sure does to me!), that's about a factor of 100 cheaper than the cost of launching aboard other rockets.  Of course, SpaceshipTwo won't carry you as high.  That price tag gets you about five minutes in space, which isn't that different from Alan Shepard's experience as the first American astronaut.  That much money for five minutes might seem crazy, but VIrgin Galactic has already sold 500 tickets to people around the world.  As the economy of scale starts to kick in, the company hopes to be able to lower the ticket price by an order of magnitude or two.  So the real question is, how much would you pay to go to space?