The rocket plane with Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and other crew members takes off from Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, NM Sunday, July 11, 2021. (AP Photo / Andres Leighton) Andres Leighton / AP Hide caption hide
Andres Leighton / AP
Andres Leighton / AP
Sir Richard Branson and a crew of three hit the edge of space on Sunday with a rocket from British billionaire company Virgin Galactic. The flight heralds a new chapter in the world of aviation, with Virgin Galactic one of a handful of ambitious and well-funded companies engaged in commercializing space travel.
Taking off from Spaceport America in Las Cruces, NM – a commercial space center about 180 miles south of Albuquerque – Branson was part of a crew of four “mission specialists” capable of speeds three times faster than sound.
The spacecraft, attached to a larger aircraft, rolled over a runway at Spaceport America before taking off at around 8:40 a.m. local time.
As the two-pilot mothership approached more than 46,000 feet above the surface of the earth, Virgin Galactic streamed live a video with vignettes about the ship, interviews with NASA astronauts and other material hosted by late-night comedian Stephen Colbert.
The climb to the start – where the mothership launched the Galactic Unity 22 – took nearly 50 minutes. Once removed, an on-board missile was deployed that shot Galactic Unity 22 to a top altitude of more than 282,000 feet.
While communication with the ship was limited, Branson was heard say it was an “experience of a lifetime” and described the view of the spaceport as “beautiful”.
He congratulated those involved in the project, including his crew.
At Galactic Unity 22 he was joined by three employees from Virgin Galactic Beth Moses, the senior astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, chief operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.
Branson and the three others on the spaceship were weightless for a few moments before Galactic Unity 22 made its descent.
Branson said the trip was a lifelong dream
Branson told NPR’s Morning Edition last week that he had longed for such a trip since childhood.
“I was once a kid when I was standing with my father and sister looking up at the moon and was told Buzz and Neil were standing on it,” Branson said, referring to the famous Apollo 11 astronauts. “And I just thought I’d have to go into space one day.”
Sunday’s launch was postponed by about 90 minutes from its original launch time as overnight weather conditions caused the spacecraft to leave its hangar delayed. But when the sun rose, the conditions at the launch site looked favorable for the flight.
Branson, who first registered the Virgin Galactic name in 2004, required hundreds of engineers and millions of dollars to go into space. After it was believed that it could take six or seven years to reach the goal of going into space, it took Branson’s company more than twice as long, surviving a deadly test flight in 2014.
Billionaires like Branson set up their sites in space
Branson – whose 71st birthday is a week before Sunday – is one of a trio of billionaire businessmen who started commercial space companies.
Jeff Bezos, the founder and chairman of the board of directors of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, will launch his company Blue Origin on July 20th. In June, Bezos auctioned the first seat on the company’s New Shepherd spacecraft for $ 28 million.
Space X’s CEO and chief engineer Elon Musk has also made efforts to create commercial space opportunities.
While the competition between the three men has been the focus for the past few months, Branson and Musk appeared to be in a celebratory mood the Sunday leading up to the Virgin Galactic flight.
“Big day ahead of us. Great to start the morning with a friend. Feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready,” tweeted Branson that morning, posting a photo of himself with Musk.
After a number of exchanges on the social media platform, Musk tweeted back, “Godspeed!”
Virgin Galactic’s current flagship, SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, has a maximum capacity of eight people, including two pilots and six passengers.
The company plans to begin rolling out customers in 2022, with tickets selling for $ 250,000 apiece. More than 600 people have already bought tickets for the near-space joyride.