Sir Richard Branson floats in space

Virgin Galactic marks milestone for commercial space travel

Image credit: Virgin Galactic

Space company Virgin Galactic took its founder Sir Richard Branson to the edge of space yesterday (Sunday July 11) in its first fully crewed flight. Sir Richard described the flight as the “experience of a lifetime”.

US-based Virgin Galactic, which is partially owned by Sir Richard’s Virgin Group, aims to develop commercial spacecraft for the purposes of space tourism. This most recent flight marked the 22nd flight test for the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, its fourth crewed flight, and its first with a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists.

Take-off was delayed by around 90 minutes by adverse weather conditions. In a livestreamed video hosted by television personality Stephen Colbert, Virgin Galactic demonstrated its launch from Spaceport America in New Mexico at 15.45 UK time. The vehicle reached 40,000ft (12.2km) 15 minutes later. It was carried into the atmosphere by its mothership, VMS Eve, after which it was released and ignited, powering high above Earth’s surface. This approach could potentially allow it to reach altitudes of 250,000ft (76.2km). During this test flight, it reached a maximum altitude of 46,000ft (14km).

Sir Richard reached Mach 3 in the vehicle. The crew experienced several minutes of weightlessness, with the vehicle returning to the ground 55 minutes after launch. During the return flight, Sir Richard described it as the “experience of a lifetime”.

Emerging onto the runway, he was greeted by his grandchildren, well-wishers and a dousing of champagne, enthusiastically saying: “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age”. Speaking to reporters later, Sir Richard said: “I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid, but honestly nothing could prepare you for the view of Earth from space. The whole thing was just magical.”

Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, commented after the flight: “This is a landmark moment for Virgin Galactic. It’s a landmark moment for the new commercial space industry and it certainly is a landmark moment for our founder [Sir] Richard Branson.” He added that the company aims to “[open] up space to all”.

Tourists are expected to begin paying around $250,000 (£180,000) for a single journey with Virgin Galactic: 600 individuals have already reserved their tickets. The experience includes four minutes in near zero-gravity conditions. It plans at least two further test flights this year before commencing commercial operations in 2022. Sir Richard said he hopes to eventually lower the price to around $40,000 (£29,000) as Virgin Galactic scales up its operations to a target of 400 flights per year.

Sir Richard flew to the edge of space amid a much-publicised (and much-derided) race with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: a fellow billionaire founder-astronaut. Bezos aims to reach space just days after Sir Richard with his own company, Blue Origin, and its space vehicle New Shepard. Bezos posted on Instagram: “Congratulations on the flight. Can’t wait to join the club!” Sir Richard said that he and Bezos have a friendly rivalry, telling reporters: “We wish Jeff the absolute best and that he will get up and enjoy his flight.”

However, Blue Origin took to Twitter to criticise Virgin Galactic, stating that it fell short of a true spaceflight as it did not reach the 100km high Kármán line which is internationally recognised as the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space. “New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin said.

The third competitor in the billionaire space race, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk, attended a reception to celebrate the Virgin Galactic flight and has reportedly purchased a ticket for a ride in its vehicle. Musk aims to send SpaceX’s first all-civilian crew (not including Musk) into orbit in September.

Professor Louis Brennan of Trinity College Dublin said: “With the take-off of space tourism and more generally the business of space, Bezos, Branson and Musk can no longer be dismissed as wealthy boys with toys. They have brought a renewed pioneering spirit and entrepreneurial zeal and intensity to the space sector. In doing so, they have made substantial progress in advancing the frontier of space and space tourism.

“They have created cost economies through, for example, their innovative implementation of circular economy principles. For example, SpaceX’s embrace of reusable rockets has drastically reduced costs. Critically, these flights have been an inspiration to others. Private capital is now flowing into the space sector with its size forecast to increase almost threefold by 2040 to become a $1tn industry.”

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