On the morning of October 4, 2004, in Mojave, California, I stood on the flight line of the Mojave Air and Spaceport with 27,000 other spectators looking up.

Fifty thousand feet above, a little, three-seat space plane scratched the clear, blue sky, riding out of the atmosphere on the contrail of a single hybrid rocket motor. Onboard, former Navy pilot Brian Binnie aimed his craft, SpaceShipOne, straight and true using stick-and-rudder controls like a barnstormer of old.

Writing of the experience later in his book The Magic and Menace of SpaceShipOne, Brian said when the rocket motor shuts off, “it is like stepping across a threshold into another realm, a realm of blessed peace and quiet and the instant karma of weightlessness.”

Yesterday, nearly 17 years later, SpaceShipOne’s six-seat successor, Unity, lit its rocket motor high above another desert in New Mexico. Onboard were financier Richard Branson and three other spaceflight participants, and two pilots who got to experience that instant karma for themselves.

Sirisha Bandia at the window of Unity

Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic, gazes out the window. Images courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

It had been a long hard road to get there from Binnie’s XPRIZE-winning flight, punctuated by two fatal accidents. But Virgin Galactic’s commercial suborbital spaceflight experience was finally ready to debut, and without a hitch.

Scaling up SpaceShipOne

It all started with Binnie’s flight, the second of two back-to-back spaceflights required to win the Ansari XPRIZE. Peter Diamandis had launched the original XPRIZE — $10 million to the first team to fly to suborbital space twice in a week in the same vehicle — to jumpstart commercial space travel. Richard Branson was standing by, poised to invest his millions, if only Scaled Composites, SpaceShipOne’s builder, could nail that second flight.

It was by no means a sure thing. SpaceShipOne’s first powered flight ended in a hard landing that, fortunately, only resulted in a broken landing gear. Subsequent flights variously started angled downward, went off course, and corkscrewed uncontrollably.

It all came down to Binnie to fly a perfect trajectory to demonstrate that the ship could fly paying passengers safely. And demonstrate it he did. In fact, he made it look easy, and Branson signed on.

Scaling up SpaceShipOne’s three seats to six in a SpaceShipTwo proved anything but easy, however. First, a cold flow test of the ship’s nitrous oxide oxidizer touched off an explosion that killed three engineers — Eric Blackwell, Todd Ivens, and Glenn Mayin — in 2007. Then, in 2014, Virgin Galactic’s Enterprise broke up during a powered test flight, killing pilot Michael Alsbury.

A Soulful Appreciation

Even now, the spaceships’ hybrid rocket motor technology has proven underpowered to get the larger vehicle to the 100-kilometer/62-mile altitude required of SpaceShipOne to win the XPRIZE. That’s the altitude of the Kármán line recognized by Fédération Aéronautique Internationale as the beginning of space, something competitor Jeff Bezos pointed out a couple of days before Branson’s flight. Bezos plans to fly his company Blue Origin’s New Sheppard rocket to suborbital space on July 20.

Virgin Galactic’s ship does surpass the 50-mile altitude defined by NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and the FAA as the boundary of space. And the experience of those paying $250,000 to get there will be comparable to Binnie’s in SpaceShipOne — with the added benefit of being able to unstrap from their seats and float about the cabin.

But perhaps the greatest benefit will be what Binnie describes in his book as a new appreciation of planet Earth.

“Unless unmoved by any spiritual stirrings, the juxtaposition between earth, space, and their improbable interface, the delicate electric arc of the atmosphere, will draw out that higher awareness and soulful appreciation of the gift that is our home.”

SpaceShipOne pilot Brian Binnie