On a historic day, the Virgin Galactic rocket made its maiden flight – while the UK launched its own Space Agency to rival NASA.
The SpaceShipTwo – the first rocket which plans to carry tourists – made a successful three-hour test flight slung beneath the wing of its mothership, the WhiteKnightTwo.
The pair reached 45,000ft – just below the 50,000ft altitude at which SpaceShipTwo will eventually be released on a Mach 3 thrill ride to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Workers and onlookers clapped and cheered as the aircraft – dubbed the Virgin Spaceship Enterprise – touched down in the California desert at the Mojave Air Base.
Designer Burt Rutan said: “This is a momentous day.” And Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson said: “Seeing the finished spaceship in December was a major day for us. But watching VSS Enterprise fly for the first time brings home what beautiful vehicles Burt and his team have developed.”
And while Virgin Galactic started its two-year test programme in the US, the Government launched a drive to make the UK an economic powerhouse in space over the next 20 years with the £230million UK Space Agency.
Britain’s official astronaut-in-waiting Major Tim Peake revealed its £10,000 logo, which features a Union Jack shooting for the stars.
The UK already has world-leading expertise in robotics and satellite technology, contributing £6bn a year to the economy and supporting 68,000 jobs – but the agency aims to give the sector the financial muscle to grow to £40billion, creating around 100,000 jobs over the next 20 years.
Lord Mandelson, who announced a £40million Space Innovation Centre at Harwell, near Oxford, said: “This stuff is not sci-fi. It may start in space, but it comes down to Earth very quickly and is directly relevant to all our daily lives.”
But Virgin Galactic is hoping for a more immediate impact with commercial flights planned for 2012. About 330 people have already pledged to pay £133,000 to be flown six at a time with a crew of two, before gliding to Earth.