Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson goes on suborbital space trip, taking the spotlight from Jeff Bezos

SpaceShipTwo launch
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, fires up its hybrid rocket motor to head spaceward. (Virgin Galactic via YouTube)

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson rode his company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane into the skies over New Mexico today and did something that no billionaire has done before.

In the company of five crewmates, Branson became the first billionaire to take a rocket-powered ride on his own company’s spaceship, rising above the 50-mile mark that the Federal Aviation Administration considers the boundary of outer space.

Only two other billionaires are in the same class: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who came to New Mexico’s Spaceport America to see Branson off and has reportedly reserved a ticket for a future Virgin Galactic flight; and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who’s getting ready for his own suborbital ride to space aboard the rocket ship built by his Blue Origin space venture.

Big day ahead. Great to start the morning with a friend. Feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready.

Watch #Unity22 launch and livestream TODAY at 7:30 am PT | 10:30 am ET | 3:30 pm BST.@virgingalactic @elonmusk https://t.co/1313b4RAKI pic.twitter.com/FRQqrQEbH8

— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 11, 2021

At its peak, the VSS Unity plane rose to an unofficial altitude of more than 282,700 feet — 53.5 miles, or 86.2 kilometers. On the way down, Branson said it was the “experience of a lifetime.”

Branson is not the first billionaire to reach outer space: Veteran Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi did that twice during trips to the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009. And for what it’s worth, two additional space station visitors became billionaires after they flew on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

But the fact that the British-born Branson is essentially “eating his own dog food,” to use a tech term, serves as a milestone for the commercial spaceflight industry.

“After many decades of effort to get space tourism off the ground, we have not one, but two companies carrying their founders and our bad-ass friends to space!” former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver tweeted in advance of today’s takeoff. “I’m beyond thrilled for all!”

A month ago, it looked as if Bezos might beat Branson to the punch; however, Branson drew extra encouragement from the success of the VSS Unity rocket plane’s latest test flight, and from the FAA’s thumbs-up for commercial operations. As a result, he moved up the date of his long-planned flight to space.

Branson insists he’s not in a space race with Bezos, but it’s hard to believe the self-styled rebel billionaire didn’t think about the extra attention he’d get for breaking the space barrier in advance of Bezos’ flight on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

In keeping with Branson’s image, Virgin Galactic brought out the glitz for today’s proceedings at Spaceport America. The company arranged for live coverage of a test flight for the first time, with talk-show host Stephen Colbert signed up as the emcee. Hundreds of thousands of viewers were watching YouTube when the highly produced webcast began, several minutes after takeoff.

Showbiz celebrities like Kate Winslet contributed to a good-luck video released on the eve of the launch, space celebrities like Musk and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield were on hand for the takeoff, and the singer-songwriter Khalid unveiled a new tune titled “New Normal” after the landing.

Today’s trip followed the trajectory traced during VSS Unity’s three previous journeys above the 50-mile mark. Two of those flights were conducted from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, in late 2018 and early 2019. The third took place in May from Spaceport America, the venue for today’s test.

Unity was slung beneath its VMS Eve mothership for takeoff at about 7:40 a.m. PT. It took about 45 minutes for Eve and Unity to reach the drop zone at about 45,000 feet in altitude. After doing their final checks, Eve’s pilots released Unity from that height, and Unity’s pilots lit up the plane’s hybrid rocket motor.

At the top of the ride, the travelers gazed out at the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space and experienced a few minutes of weightlessness at the top of the ride. On the choppy webcast, Branson and his crewmates could be seen floating in the cabin with their feet sticking up in the air.

For the descent, Unity’s pilots put the plane’s wings in an angled position to increase drag and reduce velocity from supersonic levels, and then repositioned them for the glide back to an airplane-like landing at Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci were at Unity’s controls. Branson’s fellow mission specialists were Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor, who took a trip to space in 2019; lead operations engineer Colin Bennett; and Sirisha Bandia, vice president of government affairs and research operations.

Bandia was in charge of a plant growth experiment from the University of Florida that required several handheld fixation tubes to be activated at various points during the flight.

Rounding out the flight team were CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer, who are piloting the VMS Eve mothership.

Virgin Galactic says the primary purpose of today’s test flight is to assess the company’s on-the-ground training program, the onboard customer experience and the procedures that researchers will employ when they accompany their scientific payloads. Two more test flights are scheduled, with commercial operations due to begin next year.

About 600 customers have already paid as much as $250,000 each for reservations on those future flights, and the price is certain to rise for future reservations. (Musk reportedly paid a $10,000 deposit.)

Branson’s flight and Bezos’ upcoming flight may well mark the start of a scramble for suborbital spaceflight customers: Last month, a yet-to-be-identified auction bidder paid $28 million plus a buyer’s premium to sit alongside Bezos on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft. That’s an indicator of the market interest in suborbital space trips (or at least the interest in being part of a newsworthy spaceflight).

The competition for customers helps explain why Branson decided to upstage Bezos, and why Blue Origin is trying so mightily to play up what it sees as its advantages in the race for space customers.

Just a couple of days ago, Blue Origin noted in a spicy tweet that New Shepard is designed to soar beyond the 100-kilometer (62-mile) mark that currently serves as the internationally accepted boundary of space, while Virgin Galactic is targeting the FAA’s 50-mile boundary instead. Blue Origin said none of its customers will “have an asterisk next to their name” in the list of suborbital spacefliers.

Bezos lowered the temperature in a follow-up Instagram post that wished Branson and his team “best of luck.”

Asterisk or not, Branson’s trip on a rocket ship has stolen the spotlight, at least for the time being. But there’ll still be plenty of drama surrounding Bezos’ upcoming flight. Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity has carried people beyond its 50-mile target altitude three times before. In contrast, New Shepard’s previous 15 test flights have all been uncrewed.

That means Bezos and his three crewmates — including his brother Mark, female aviation pioneer Wally Funk and the mystery auction winner — will be the first people to ride on New Shepard. Bezos could argue that he and the others are going on a particular type of space trip that no man or woman has gone on before, with all the risks that accompany a first crewed flight.

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Space Richard branson Space tourism Spaceport america Spaceshiptwo Suborbital spaceflight Virgin galactic Vss unity