British billionaire Richard Branson rose more than 50 miles across the New Mexico desert aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket on Sunday and safely returned on the vehicle’s first fully manned test flight into space, a symbolic milestone for a venture he started 17 years ago.
Branson, one of six employees from Virgin Galactic Holding Inc who were tied to the trip, announced the mission as a precursor to a new era in space tourism, with the company he founded in 2004 ready to begin commercial operations next year. .
“We are here to make space more accessible to all,” said a bubbly Branson, 70, shortly after embracing his grandchildren after the flight. “Welcome to the beginning of a new space time.”
The success of the flight also gave the flamboyant entrepreneur a boast of rights in a heavily publicized rivalry with fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, Amazon online retail mogul who had hoped to fly into space first aboard his own space company’s rocket.
“Congratulations on the flight,” Bezos said on Instagram. “Can’t wait to join the club!”
Leaders of the aerospace industry, future customers and other well-being were ready for a festive gathering to witness the launch, which was livestreamed in a presentation hosted by TV comedian Stephen Colbert in the evening. Attending the reception was another billionaire aerospace industry pioneer, Elon Musk, who is also the founder of the electric car manufacturer Tesla Inc.
Grammy-nominated R&B singer Khalid performed his upcoming single “New Normal” after the flight.
The shiny white space plane was carried upstairs attached to the underside of the double hull beam VMS Eve (named after Branson’s deceased mother) from Spaceport America, a state-owned facility near the appropriately named truth or consequences. Virgin Galactic rents a large part of the plant.
The VSS Unity passenger rocket flight, which reached its starting point at an altitude of approx. 46,000 feet, was released from the mother ship and fell away as the crew ignited its rocket and sent the streak straight up at supersonic speeds to the black space about 53 miles (86 km) high.
The contraption of the space plane was clearly visible from the ground as it rose through the upper atmosphere to the cheers of the audience below.
On top of the ascent with the rocket shut down, the crew experienced a few minutes of microgravity before the space plane switched to re-entry mode and began a sliding descent to a runway back at the spaceport. The whole flight lasted about an hour.
“I was once a child with a dream that looked up to the stars. Now I am an adult in a spaceship and looking down on our beautiful earth, ”Branson said in a video from space.
Back at a celebration with supporters from a stadium outside the Virgin Galactics Gateway to Space complex at the spaceport, he and crew members dozed off each other with champagne.
Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield attached virgin-produced astronaut wings to the blue flight suits worn by Branson and his team. Official wing pins from the Federal Aviation Administration will be presented later, a spokesman for the company said.
MAIN COST TICKETS
Virgin Galactic has said it plans to launch at least two more spaceflight test flights in the coming months before commencing regular commercial operations in 2022. One of those flights will involve four Italian astronauts in training, according to the company’s CEO Michael Colglazier.
He said 600 wealthy bourgeois astronauts have also reserved reservations priced at about $ 250,000 per ticket to excite supersonic flight, weightlessness and space spectacle.
Branson has said he ultimately aims to lower the price to around $ 40,000 per tonne. Seat when the company increases service and achieves greater economies of scale. Colglazier said he ultimately envisages building a fleet large enough to accommodate about 400 flights annually in the spaceport.
The Swiss-based investment bank UBS has estimated the potential value of the space tourism market to reach $ 3 billion annually by 2030.
Proving rocket travel safely to the public is key.
An earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.
BRANSONS SPACE RACE
Branson’s participation in Sunday’s flight, announced just over a week ago, characterized his persona as the bold leader whose various Virgin brands – from airlines to music companies – have long been associated with his overseas holdings in sailboats and hot air balloons.
His turn-up also staged rival astro-tourism venture Blue Origin and its founder, Bezos, in what has been popularized as “billionaire spaceflight.” Bezos plans to fly aboard its own suborbital rocket ship, the New Shepard, later this month.
Branson has insisted that he and Bezos are friendly rivals and not fighting to beat each other in space.
“We wish Jeff the very best and that he gets up and enjoys his flight,” Branson said at a post-flight press conference.
However, Blue Origin has downgraded Virgin Galactic as a lack of a true aerospace experience, saying that unlike Unity, Bezos’ New Shepard tops the 62 km high mark (100 km), called the Kármán line, set by an international aviation body which defines the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space.
“New Shepard was designed to fly over the Kármán line, so none of our astronauts have a star next to their name,” Blue Origin said in a series of Twitter posts on Friday.
However, the US space agency NASA and the US Air Force both define an astronaut as anyone who has flown higher than 80 km.
A third player in the space tourism industry, Musk’s SpaceX, plans to send its first all-civilian crew (without Musk) into orbit in September, having already launched several cargo payloads and astronauts to NASA’s International Space Station.
The spacecraft’s two pilots were Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci. The other three mission specialists were Beth Moses, the firm’s chief astronaut instructor; Virgin Galactics Leading Operations Engineer Colin Bennett; and Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Research Operations and Government Affairs.
Everyone is told afterwards, fascinated by the view through Unity’s windows. Mackay described the enormous blackness of space against the brightness of the earth’s surface, “separated by the beautiful blue atmosphere, which is very complex and very thin.”
“Cameras do not do it justice,” he told reporters. “You have to see it with your own eyes.”
(Reporting by Steve Gorman Editing by Daniel Wallis and Lisa Shumaker)