Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, launches its hybrid rocket engine to fly into space. (Virgin Galactic via YouTube)
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson took his company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket to the skies over New Mexico today and did something no billionaire has done before.
Accompanied by five crew members, Branson became the first billionaire to take a rocket-powered ride on his own company’s spaceship and top the 80-mile mark that the Federal Aviation Administration considers the limit of space.
Only two other billionaires are in the same class: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who flew to New Mexico to see off Branson and allegedly reserved a ticket on a Virgin Galactic flight; and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is preparing for a suborbital space trip with the rocket ship of his space company Blue Origin.
Big day ahead. Great to start the morning with a friend. Feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready.
Watch the # Unity22 launch and livestream TODAY at 7:30 am PT | 10:30 p.m. ET | 3:30 p.m. BST. @ Virgingalactic @elonmusk https://t.co/1313b4RAKI pic.twitter.com/FRQqrQEbH8
– Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 11, 2021
At its peak, the VSS Unity aircraft soared to an altitude of 53.5 miles (86.2 kilometers). On the way down, Branson said it was the “experience of a lifetime”.
“I’ve dreamed of this moment since I was a kid,” he told the crowd at Spaceport America in New Mexico during a post-landing ceremony. “To be honest, nothing could prepare you for the view from space. The whole thing was just magical. “
Branson isn’t the first billionaire to reach space: veteran Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi did so twice during his trips to the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009. And for what it’s worth, two more space station visitors became billionaires after flying the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
But the fact that British-born Branson essentially “eats his own dog food,” to use a technical term, serves as a landmark for the commercial space industry.
“After decades of efforts to get space tourism off the ground, we have not just one, but two companies that are bringing their founders and our badass friends into space!” Former NASA Assistant Administrator Lori Garver tweeted ahead of today’s launch. “I am more than thrilled for everyone!”
A month ago it looked like Bezos could hit Branson all the way; However, Branson drew additional encouragement from the success of the latest test flight of the VSS Unity rocket plane and from thumbs up for the FAA’s commercial operations. As a result, he postponed the date of his long-planned flight into space.
Branson insists he doesn’t compete in a space race with Bezos, but it’s hard to believe the self-proclaimed rebel billionaire didn’t think of the extra attention he’d get if he hit the space barrier ahead of Bezos’ July 20th flight breached the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
In keeping with Branson’s image, Virgin Galactic brought out the glamor for today’s procedure at Spaceport America. The company arranged for live coverage of a test flight for the first time, with talk show host Stephen Colbert signing up to host. Hundreds of thousands of viewers watched YouTube when the high-production webcast began a few minutes after it started.
Showbiz celebrities like Kate Winslet contributed to a happy video released the night before the launch, space stars like Musk and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield attended the launch, and singer-songwriter Khalid revealed a new tune called “New Normal” . ” after the landing.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is modeled after the SpaceShipOne rocket plane that won the $ 10 million Ansari-X Prize for privately funded space travel in 2004 under the direction of space pioneer Burt Rutan with financial support from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
“That endeavor was ‘classic Paul’ – having a vision, finding the right person to carry out that vision, funding the project and getting out after leaving the world in a completely different state than before – demonstrated in this case he demonstrates the feasibility of private space travel by actually doing it, “University of Washington computer scientist Ed Lazowska told GeekWire in an email.
Today’s ride followed the trajectory recorded by VSS Unity during the previous three rides above the 50 mile mark. Two of these flights were operated by Mojave Air and Space Port, California, in late 2018 and early 2019. The third took place in May from Spaceport America, where today’s test will be held.
Unity was hurled under its VMS Eve mothership at around 7:40 a.m. PT for launch from Spaceport America. It took Eve and Unity about 45 minutes to reach the drop zone at about 45,000 feet. After performing their final checks, Eve’s pilots released Unity from this altitude, and Unity’s pilots set fire to the aircraft’s hybrid rocket engine.
At the top of the journey, the travelers looked at the curved earth beneath the black sky of space and experienced weightlessness for a few minutes on the journey. In the choppy webcast, Branson was seen floating in the cabin, feet in the air.
Richard Branson smiles as he sits in his seat in VSS Unity. (Virgin Galactic via YouTube)
For the descent, Unity pilots tilted the aircraft’s wings to increase drag and reduce speed from supersonic levels, then repositioned them for the return flight for an airplane-like landing at Spaceport America.
Virgin Galactic pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci were at the controls of Unity. Branson’s other mission specialists included Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor, who took a trip into space in 2019; senior production engineer Colin Bennett; and Sirisha Bandia, vice president of government affairs and research operations.
Bandia led a University of Florida plant growth experiment that required multiple portable fixation tubes to be activated at various points during the flight.
The flight team was rounded off by CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer, who piloted the mother ship VMS Eve.
After the flight, some observers noticed a wrinkled area on the Unity’s hull skin, but it turned out to be nothing unusual. “The ship looks pristine,” Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses said at a press conference. The one problem that Moses mentioned had to do with a possible antenna blockage, which resulted in dropouts in the video transmission during the flight.
Virgin Galactic said the primary purpose of today’s test flight is to assess the company’s on-site training program, on-board customer experience, and the procedures researchers will use when accompanying their scientific payloads.
“At first I thought testing the customer experience was a little excuse to get me moving,” Branson said later. “It wasn’t. It’s so great to just go out there and test the customer experience. You get lists and lists of little things, and it’s the little details that count. “
Two more test flights are planned and commercial operations are scheduled to begin next year. Approximately 600 customers have already paid up to $ 250,000 each for reservations on these future flights, and the price of future reservations is certain to go up. (Musk reportedly made a $ 10,000 deposit.)
Branson announced that Virgin Galactic is partnering with Omaze to sponsor a sweepstakes to award two tickets for a future SpaceShipTwo flight. Proceeds go to Space for Humanity, a non-profit organization focused on expanding access to space.
Richard Branson is excited about his trip on the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. (Virgin Galactic via YouTube)
Branson’s flight and the upcoming Bezos flight could mark the start of a scramble for suborbital space customers: Last month, a still-to-be-identified auction bidder paid $ 28 million plus a buyer’s premium to sit next to Bezos on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft. This is an indicator of market interest in suborbital space travel (or at least interest in being part of newsworthy space travel).
The competition for customers explains why Branson chose to dwarf Bezos and why Blue Origin is trying so hard to use its advantages in the race for space customers.
Just a few days ago, Blue Origin noted in a sharp tweet that New Shepard was designed to fly past the 100-kilometer (62 miles) mark that is currently serving as the internationally accepted boundary of outer space, while Virgin Galactic does FAA is targeting 50-mile limit instead. Blue Origin said none of its customers would have “an asterisk next to their name” on their suborbital spaceflight list.
These type of snipers sparked a backlash, but Bezos lowered the temperature in a subsequent Instagram post wishing Branson and his team “good luck”.
Virgin Galactic developed specially designed astronaut wings in the shape of sycamore seeds to be given to aviators today – and probably future aviators as well.
“It is a ridiculous honor for me, sir, to be able to give you something you have practically earned,” Hadfield said today as he attached the sycamore pin to Branson’s flight suit. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Sir Richard Branson, astronaut!”
Asterisk or not, Branson’s trip on a rocket ship has stolen the limelight, at least for now. But there will still be a lot of drama surrounding Bezos’ upcoming flight. While Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity has carried people over 50 miles three times, New Shepard’s last 15 test flights have all been unmanned.
That means Bezos and his three crew members – including his brother Mark, aviation pioneer Wally Funk, and the winner of the Mystery Auction – will be the first people to ride New Shepard. Bezos could argue that he and the others are going on a special kind of space journey that no man or woman has ever undertaken, with all the risks that a first flight with a crew entails.
Bezos was gracious to Branson in a post-flight Instagram update today.
“Congratulations on the flight,” he wrote. “I can’t wait to join the club!”
This report was first published on July 11 at 8 a.m. PT and was updated several times during and after the flight.