Dramatic in-flight video from Virgin Galactic shows the dazzling view Earth from above from the private spaceflight company's SpaceShipTwo vehicle, the VSS Unity, during its historic first flight to space Thursday (Dec. 13) over California's Mojave Desert.
The flight was brief, with a rocket motor burn of just 60 seconds, but the mission reached the company's targeted altitude, hitting a peak of 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers), which it deems meets the requirement for spaceflight. (That's the subject of some debate, with others arguing the boundary ought to lie at 62 miles, or 100 km.) But no matter how you parse it, the view was tremendous. [In Photos: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity Soars to Space]
The two pilots on board during the flight, Mark '"Forger"' Stucky and Frederick "'CJ"' Sturckow, landed safely back on the ground about an hour after entering the cockpit. During most of that time, VSS Unity was still connected to the specially designed plane that lifted it high enough for separation. Just 14 minutes elapsed between vehicle separation and the moment Unity's wheels touched down again.
But it was 14 minutes of a "billion-dollar view," according to in-flight audio included in the released footage of flight highlights. At maximum speed, the pilots were flying at nearly three times the speed of sound.
On their way back down, the pilots celebrated their success with a victory roll, watching the Earth spin below them as they sped back to the ground.
The flight marked a major leap forward for Virgin Galactic, which aims to launch passenger suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo (it carries eight people, two pilots and six passengers) for $250,000 a seat. The company was founded in 2004 by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson.
"Many of you will know how important the dream of space travel is to me personally. Ever since I watched the moon landings as a child I have looked up to the skies with wonder," Branson said in a statement. "We started Virgin nearly 50 years ago dreaming big and loving a challenge. Today, as I stood among a truly remarkable group of people with our eyes on the stars, we saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled. It was an indescribable feeling: joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is yet to come."