- Virgin Galactic flew its first full crew – including founder Richard Branson – to the edge of space.
- Two pilots flew the company’s VSS Unity space plane 89km above Earth then landed safely. Virgin Galactic is poised to fly customers next year.
- Branson reached space before Jeff Bezos.
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Billionaire Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, was aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo space plane on Sunday morning. He served as a “mission specialist,” testing the passenger experience for future customers. Three other Virgin Galactic employees did the same: Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, its lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, the vice president of government affairs and research.
The four of them were the first full crew that Virgin Galactic has ever rocketed to the edge of space. Two pilots, Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci, flew the vehicle. The late physicist Stephen Hawking gave the space plane its name, “VSS Unity.”
The plane was secured to the bottom of a mothership, a double-fuselage aircraft called “VMS Eve,” after Branson’s mother. The carrier lifted off from a runway at Virgin Galactic’s facilities in Spaceport America, New Mexico, at 10:40 a.m. ET. Then it climbed to 50,000 feet – roughly 16km above sea level.
There, the mothership dropped the VSS Unity. Immediately, Mackay and Masucci fired the space plane’s rocket engines, tilted it upwards, and roared towards space, climbing another 72km or so. The force of gravity as the plane screamed upwards pressed Branson and his crewmates into their seats.
With the curvature of the Earth below them and the blackness of space above, the pilots shut off the plane’s engines and everybody onboard felt weightless. They had just about 5 minutes to enjoy the sensation and peer out the spacecraft’s 17 windows before gravity began to pull them back to Earth.
The space plane’s hull protected the crew as it plowed through Earth’s atmosphere, superheating the material around it and echoing a supersonic boom through the New Mexico skies. Around 16km up, the VSS Unity engaged its wings and began its glide to a runway touchdown.
The whole flight lasted just one hour.
“Remember the name Virgin Galactic, because today space is Virgin territory,” Veronica McGowan, a Virgin Galactic engineer, said on the company’s livestream. “Congratulations again Richard.”
Virgin Galactic wants to start taking paying customers on this flight next year, for $250,000 per seat. Already, more than 700 people have signed up for the ride, including Tom Hanks, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga, Today reported.
Branson beat rival Jeff Bezos to the edge of space
Branson has now beaten fellow billionaire rocket-company founder Jeff Bezos to the edge of space. Bezos announced last month that he would launch aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket on July 20. Then just two weeks ago, Branson announced that he would be launching nine days prior to Bezos.
Branson has insisted that he wasn’t racing the founder of Blue Origin and Amazon.
“I completely understand why the press would write that,” he told The Washington Post. “It’s just an incredible, wonderful coincidence that we’re going up in the same month.”
But Virgin Galactic did speed up its schedule. The company originally planned to fly its first full crew without Branson. He was scheduled to go on the flight after this one.
The ‘edge of space’ is up for debate
Not everybody agrees that Branson and his crewmates actually went to space.
“We wish him a great and safe flight, but they’re not flying above the Kármán line and it’s a very different experience,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith told The New York Times after Branson’s announcement.
The Kármán line is a hypothetical boundary between Earth and space, about 100km above sea level. That’s where New Shepard is set to carry Bezos on July 20.
However, after flying VSS Unity more than 80km high in 2019, Moses, Mackay, and Masucci received astronaut-wing badges from the Federal Aviation Administration – a recognition that they had, in the agency’s eyes, been to space. NASA, too, has awarded astronaut wings to pilots who’ve flown past 80km.
Experts don’t agree on where space begins. The outermost layer of Earth’s atmosphere extends about 966km from sea level – more than twice as high as the International Space Station.
Virgin Galactic’s road to spaceflight was treacherous
Virgin Galactic struggled to reach this point. A 2007 engine test for SpaceShipTwo resulted in an explosion that killed three workers. Then the first version of the space plane, called VSS Enterprise, broke apart mid-flight above the Mojave desert in October 2014, killing co-pilot Michael Asbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold.
Branson originally planned to ride SpaceShipTwo in 2014 or 2015 but had to delay those plans after the disaster.
Since Virgin Galactic began testing VSS Unity in 2016, its flights have been successful. Before Sunday, pilots had flown the VSS Unity to the edge of space and back three times since December 2018. Just one of those flights carried a passenger – Moses.
Ultimately, Virgin Galactic aims to fly six passengers at a time, but the company is planning two more test flights before it begins launching customers.