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Virgin Galactic Takes Major Leap Toward Space Tourism

Virgin Galactic has officially achieved its first space flight. The private tourism company founded by Richard Branson achieved an altitude of 51.4 miles on a test flight this week with astronauts on board, surpassing the 50-mile mark the U.S. government recognizes as the official boundary of outer space .

The rocket flight was not only meaningful for Virgin Galactic, but historic in the general sense as well. “Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space,” Branson said following the test flight. “We completed our first revenue generating flight and our pilots earned their Commercial Astronaut Wings. Today, we have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good.”

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George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and the Spaceship Company, added, “[This] is more compelling evidence that commercial space is set to become one of the twenty-first century’s defining industries. Reusable vehicles built and operated by private companies are about to transform our business and personal lives in ways which are as yet hard to imagine.”

This is true, but the fact is that space tourism will only transform the lives of the very rich. That’s not a criticism—space travel is necessarily very expensive—but at $200,000 or more per flight, most of us will, unfortunately, have to watch from the ground.

When Will Space Tourism Be a Reality?

As exciting as this week’s test flight may be, the space tourism business still has a ways to go before regular flights are a reality.

For starters, Branson is still courting investors. “Space is not cheap,” he told the crowd at the launch. “I’ve personally invested about a billion dollars in this project, so having our first money coming back is a good feeling… We’ve got to make this a profitable venture, and I think we can make it a profitable venture.” He said he hopes the successful launch attracts one or two additional investors.

Virgin Galactic also plans several more tests before its first passenger flight. This test came closest to following the plan for commercial flights, but some wrinkles remain. According to CNN,  the company has not set a date for commercial flights, and will need to move operations to its future home base, Spaceport America in New Mexico, before doing so. But one thing is certain: Virgin Galactic’s first commercial passenger will be Branson himself.

SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rival space tourism company, currently targets 2023 for its first commercial flight.

Readers, would you take a flight to space if money were no object?

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By Carl Unger

Contributing Editor Carl Unger believes that every trip is worth taking. He loves an extended trip to Europe as much as he enjoys exploring the towns and landscape near home. Basically, you'll find him wherever there is good food, fresh air, and plenty of stories to bring home.

Carl has been writing for SmarterTravel since 2005. His travel writing has also appeared on USA Today and the About.com Boston travel guide.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "It's not revolutionary, but a small Moleskine notebook is my one travel must-have. It's great for noting things you want to remember and it takes up hardly any space in your bag."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Japan. I'd love to take a month off and visit the cities, temples, and countryside. I'm fascinated by the country's juxtaposition of ancient traditions and modern ambitions."

Travel Motto: “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” –Terry Pratchett

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Window."

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