Richard Branson has successfully flown into space aboard Virgin Galactic.
A week before his 71st birthday, the billionaire mogul successfully flew aboard the VSS unity, which touched down at Virgin Galactic’s New Mexico hub Spaceport America earlier today.
Travelling aboard the space plane VSS Unity, Branson climbed to an altitude of 90km (295,000ft), offering a view of the curvature of the Earth and four minutes of weightlessness for those onboard.
VSS Unity took off beneath the wings of a carrier aircraft known as VMS Eve, named after Branson’s late mother Evette Branson.
At an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), Eve dropped Unity and the space plane made its own way to suborbital space.
Following their brief time at the edge of space, Unity glided back down to Earth to land safely at Virgin Galactic’s ‘spaceport’ in New Mexico.
Branson’s trip to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere is just 9 days before former Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, with his spaceflight company Blue Origin, will make his own trip onboard his New Shepard spacecraft.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, as well as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are competitors in the emerging space tourism business.
Why is Richard Branson flying to space?
The Virgin Galactic founder has reportedly been aiming to fly to space himself since he founded the company more than 17 years ago.
While it may have been a personal mission for Branson, a successful flight will be seen as a boon for Virgin Galactic, which hopes to make space tourism mainstream for those that can pay.
There are just two more test flights planned for Virgin’s spaceship until it starts offering a commercial service in 2022, when Branson anticipates offering paid flights on ‘a regular basis’.
So a safe and accident-free flight, with Branson himself, was key for convincing potential space tourists to pay.
Observers have also noted a touch of rivalry between Branson and former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who is also flying to space with his own spaceflight company Blue Origin in 9 days’ time.
But Branson has denied that the two were in a contest to see who would go up first.
‘I just wish him and people going up with him all the very best. I look forward to talking to him about his ride when he comes back,’ Branson told Reuters.
‘I spoke to him two or three weeks ago, and we both wished each other well.’
Branson added that there was room in the market for both his and Bezos’ venture to compete.
‘Neither of us are going to be able to build enough spaceships to satisfy the demand,’ Branson said.
Virgin Galactic only got the greenlight to fly recently, after the US’ Federal Aviation Administration granted a commercial spaceflight licence in June.
Today’s flight marked the start of what’s called a ‘flight window’, an opportunity to fly in favourable weather conditions.
How did Virgin Galactic fly Sir Richard Branson to space?
Though this was Virgin Galactic’s fourth crewed test mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere, it was only the first carrying a full crew, consisting of two pilots, three mission specialists and Branson himself.
Branson and his team were aboard the VSS Unity, which launched from an altitude of 50,000 feet from a Virgin Galactic carrier plane.
The carrier plane itself launched from Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America airbase in New Mexico.
Once Unity detached from the carrier plane, it used its own rockets to travel to the boundary of space, where the ship’s inhabitants were weightless for four minutes before returning to Earth.
Although this flight was smooth sailing, not all of Virgin Galactic’s missions have been successful.
In 2014, a Virgin Galactic test flight crashed over the Mojave Desert in California, killing one pilot and injuring the other.
Before the flight, Branson suggested he didn’t feel the nerves, but that his wife might.
‘My wife is the sort of person who would be terrified on a Virgin Atlantic airplane,’ he said.
‘She’s the last person who would want to do something like this. But she’s known me since I tried to balloon across the Atlantic or the Pacific or around the world, and she still seems to love us.’
How much will it cost to fly with Virgin Galactic?
While Richard Branson’s flight upon the VSS Unity will fulfil a personal mission of his, it will also advertise to the world’s wealthiest that Virgin Galactic is soon open for business.
Around 600 individuals have already signed up the service and given deposits for a ticket to space.
But the tickets don’t come cheap – the full ticket price will be as much as £180,000 in some cases,
‘I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,’ said Branson.
‘After 17 years of research, engineering and innovation, the new commercial space industry is poised to open the Universe to humankind and change the world for good.
‘It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality.’
While that ‘accessibility’ is currently only to the very wealthiest, Branson hopes that that price can come down as Virgin Galactic’s fleet expands and operations become more streamlined.