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Virgin Galactic is closer than ever on its mission to send tourists to the edge of space

Virgin Galactic is closer than ever on its mission to send tourists to the edge of space
[Photo: courtesy of Virgin Galactic]

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo made a little bit of history today. On its mission to take six tourists at a time to space, the airplane-like ship, dubbed VSS Unity, took off on Thursday morning from California’s Mojave air and space port with four NASA research payloads and a mannequin named Annie on board.

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SpaceShipTwo was hauled to an altitude of about 45,000 feet by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and then detached. Test pilots Mark Stucky and Rick Sturckow fired up its rocket motor and catapulted the plane some 50 miles above Earth. When it crossed the 50-mile mark around 11:15 a.m. ET, it became the first human-piloted U.S. commercial flight to leave the atmosphere since 2011.

As the test flights continue and Virgin Galactic gets closer to bringing space tourists on board, the waiting list for its flights grows. So far, more than 600 people have ponied up some $250,000 for a 90-minute flight on one of Virgin’s suborbital missions, including Justin Bieber and Citibike enthusiast Leonardo DiCaprio.

As for whether or not the SpaceShipTwo actually went to “space,” well, not to sound like Bill Clinton on the witness stand, but it depends on how you define “space.” The Karman line is the internationally recognized boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, but Virgin’s plane doesn’t go quite that high. Instead, Virgin’s pilots are aiming to hit 50 miles up, which meets NASA’s definition of the edge of space. Either way, it’s one step closer to two of the most magical words in the English language: space tourism. No word if Virgin CEO Richard Branson attached a sign to the ship saying, “Kiss my thrusters, Bezos and Musk!”

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