The challenge is making it safe enough / rapidly reusable enough. If you're at just suborbital speeds, the temperature from the adiabatic compression on reentry is intense, and it's a technical challenge to handle the heating either non-ablatively, or ablatively but with cheap, safe rapidly re-applicable ablative material.
ICBM:s do it by flying trajectories with multi thousand kilometer apogees, crossing radiation belts etc. It's cheaper that way than going into a shallow high speed trajectory which requires almost orbital speeds and higher energies. (Even this wasn't obvious before ICBM:s - they worked on atmospheric cruise missiles like Navajo in parallel.)
So, point to point does not look very synergistic with these suborbital technologies. New York to Europe is around 6000 km, still a factor of 60. Transatlantic point to point is far closer to orbital flights really than these space hops.
If you fly out with your lawyers and team, you could spend the 3 hours prepping, and the 3 hours back drinking the celebratory champagne.
Tokyo - Frankfurt would be great as well since (a) Germany and Japan have a lot of ties in their manufacturing industries (ex: autos) and (b) since Frankfurt is the international air-travel hub of Europe.
Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites have demonstrated the ability to air-launch a manned vehicle into space (SpaceShipOne) using this airframe and engine tech. From that prototype, Virgin Galactic is developing a craft for commercial, space-tourism use--SpaceShipTwo.
This flight test demonstrates that the first SpaceShipTwo is airworthy and has engine function. The plan is that after more flight testing, that vehicle will actually carry paying passengers. More tests will need to be done, as the craft will need to fly faster and higher, and decelerate safely as well to reach its targets.
Also, it's important to note that Virgin Galactic's vehicles will not be achieving orbit in the near future. Instead they will bring tourists to the "edge of space" where they can experience zero gravity and look down at the globe.
Wired has a more detailed report that's worth peeking at if you're curious:
They hit mach 1.2 and climbed about 10K feet under their own power(46 to 56 thousand feet). So yeah a little underwhelming in what was accomplished. However it was the first test flight of the whole package so it is unsurprising they kept the goals modest.
On the other hand in aerospace its unusual to bolt the first prototype together then just punch it and see what happens, like a drag racer driver. Smallest reasonable steps and all that.
So, yes, this is the touristy equivalent of the Mercury program. Then comes the touristy equivalent of the Gemini program. Then perhaps the touristy equivalent of the Apollo program.
I can see how that might not be exciting. There's plenty of people who are excited about supersonic military aircraft than 737s, even though 737s fly a lot more passengers.
As to this flight, it's an integration test. Going through the sound barrier is a crucial requirement for the overall flight mission.
True, Space X has only been rated for delivering commercial cargo. But from the start their Dragon has had a crew configuration that holds 7 people. That's not just for show - they have plans to be human rated soon, and will start delivering passengers to the ISS.
Farther down the road, Elon in interviews has said that his road map includes transporting 80,000 people from Earth to Mars to start a colony. I do not know what time frame he intends this to happen in, but he's said repeatedly that he intends to be a passenger.
For Space X, delivering commercial payloads is a necessary first step similar to how Tesla needed to deliver sports cars on its way to proving the technology that they intend for a mass consumer car. According to people that I know who have worked at Space X, they ignored the Ansari X-Prize because the important engineering challenges aren't getting into space - that part is relatively easy - it is getting into space in a vehicle that will survive reentry at orbital speeds. I don't know if this belief is right, but if it is then Virgin Galactic is potentially headed down a technological dead end.
All he seems to doing on this project is providing money and grabbing as much publicity as he can, Burt Rutan's people seem to be the ones doing the real work.
I'm sure Richard Branson understands Burt Rutan's contributions. He, however, needs to sell tickets.
How do you propose this would happen without Branson's investment? Space tourism seems like a pretty risky business proposition to me, and I think he deserves credit for backing it with actual money, rather than words.
Also, I agree hitting speed of sound is not that of an achievement, but it' something given it wasn't bankrolled by limitless government funding. If they have any mishaps, their program is crashed. Where as government program can have many mishaps and it doesn't have the same impact as a consumer-oriented business.
Think of how you attack a complex problem - you can't solve everything at once, but you try to break it into smaller ones. If you build a complex piece of software, you try various concepts on a proof level, then rewrite them until you have something workable, then integrate that to your big software. If you are smart, you also use libraries that were first started for projects that did something totally different but had to create libraries on the side.
Same here too. In my opinion, hybrid rockets will not be relevant for cheap space launch in the long term, but commercial construction and operations of carrier airdrop, the shuttle cock re-entry and gliding return are something that probably will be fine tuned a lot by Virgin Galactic (operator) and The Spaceship Company (builder).
They have picked a path with a high dry mass penalty (glider wings) and quite a lot of complication (a whole extra aircraft) but they certainly are in a very exclusive club, having flown safely to 100 km, twice, with a human pilot. Their approach makes sense for an airplane company. A rocket company would build a normal liquid rocket engine that could do it from the ground and come back and land vertically again.