Not too long ago, space program superfans watched with dismay as NASA grounded its decades old space shuttle fleet. Built in the 1970s, used and reused through the 2000s, the small fleet of ships that launched like rockets and landed like planes caught the imagination of and twice overwhelmed the nation in tragedy.
When grounded, many thought that space dreams had been put on hold.
The private sector, led by Virgin, has zoomed ahead. Its prototype Galactic SS2 was towed by a cargo plane, released, then fired a booster that propelled it almost 70,000 feet in the air. This is twice as high as commercial airlines and is also the cruising altitude of the Lockheed U2 spy plane of the 1950s. It then opened a unique reentry system designed to reduce the heat of friction on reentering the atmosphere.
While it still has not reached the 80,000 feet limit established by the SR 71 Blackbird, the Galactic SS2 is designed to go much farther. Virgin will likely be the first commercial carrier to take passengers into outer space.
Space travel offers a faster ride than is possible now. Jetliners generally cruise at 600 MPH. The supersonic Concorde plane has not flown in many years. It hit Mach 1.7, but was only economically viable for long flights. The SS2 should fly at 2,500 MPH once it exits the atmosphere. The lack of friction means that it can fly faster and expend less energy.
Virgin may or may not profit from this development. But it is showing the world that the government monopoly on space travel is over.