After launching to space aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and a crew of Virgin Galactic personnel landed safely in New Mexico on Sunday. The mission, dubbed Unity 22, was the vehicle’s fourth test voyage to space and the first for Branson, a 70-year-old daredevil entrepreneur who has been waiting for his first trip to the edge of space for more than a decade.
VSS Unity, a SpaceShipTwo plane, lifted off from the belly of Virgin Galactic’s twin-fuselage WhiteKnight plane at 10:40 a.m. ET.
50 minutes after takeoff, Unity fell from the middle of the carrier craft at an altitude of nearly 45,000 feet. VSS Unity ignited its single rocket engine moments later, blasting to the edge of space and reaching a height of 53.5 miles above the ground. Before drifting back to Earth in New Mexico at Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic’s budding space tourism enterprise, the crew enjoyed a few moments of weightlessness.
As the VSS Unity reached microgravity, Branson congratulated his fellow crew members with handshakes, later calling the voyage “an adventure of a lifetime,” as heard over the plane’s shaky communications line to ground control.
Branson excited VSS Unity and skipped toward a swarm of photographers, children, and relatives immediately outside Spaceport America after touching down. In a post-flight ceremony, he could not contain his joy as he began, “I was upside down a few minutes ago.”
“I guess like most kids, I dreamed about this moment as a kid,” Branson added, “but nothing could prepare you for the vista of Earth from space.” Then, in full salesman mode, he dubbed Virgin Galactic “the spaceline for Earth” and followed through on a promise to reveal something “extremely spectacular” following his flight:
He announced a partnership with fundraising startup Omaze to give away two seats on VSS Unity as well as a personal tour of Spaceport America — “with my Willy Wonka hat on,” he joked. “And in the factory, I promise there will be plenty of chocolate,” he continued.
Apart from a probable antenna issue that caused a live video feed from inside the cabin to malfunction during important stages of the voyage, Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses told reporters that “the ship looked perfect” at touchdown.
Branson rode his bike to the spaceport before sunrise, flanked by two white Range Rovers, and said he was “feeling good, feeling thrilled, feeling ready” for his voyage to space.
He said he began the day with a visit from Elon Musk, who was in New Mexico to witness the mission firsthand. Two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci were onboard SpaceShipTwo with Branson, as well as three additional cabin crew members: Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses, Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett, and Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations Sirisha Bandla. The Virgin Galactic cabin was put to the test by the crew.
Branson and the crew were presented with gold-colored pins by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield to commemorate their new position as commercial astronauts with Virgin Galactic, having gone above the 50-mile-line declared to be space by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The mood at Spaceport America on Sunday was full of marketing and theatrics as Branson’s voyage was a wonderful opportunity to lure potential clients for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism enterprise. The spaceport, which was located next to the runway where VMS Eve took off, resembled a music festival for those who attended.
Guests watched the mission on a large screen set up in the center of a stage made up just outside Spaceport America’s main structure. The mission’s live stream was hosted by Stephen Colbert, and singer-songwriter Khalid performed a new song on stage. After landing, the VSS Unity was towed back to Spaceport America by a fleet of Range Rovers.
Virgin Galactic had planned to transport Branson as a passenger on a later test trip, but the company said earlier this month that he will be bumped up to ride as a crew member on Unity 22 instead.
This put Branson ahead of his adversary Jeff Bezos, another billionaire who wants to launch his New Shepard rocket into space on July 20th. It’s a public relations-heavy competition, but for Branson, who turns 71 on July 18th, it’s the realization of a long-held ambition to travel to space. Flying Virgin Galactic’s millionaire founder is considered as a vote of confidence that SpaceShipTwo is safe to fly by anyone. During a test flight in 2014, the business had a mid-flight disaster that killed one pilot and badly injured another. Branson promised to fly on a future flight before the firm began flying clients after that flight.
The Unity 22 mission is a significant step forward in the development of SpaceShipTwo as the corporation hopes to lead a developing space tourism sector aimed at wealthy adventurers. Virgin Galactic was created in 2004 and has sold over 600 tickets at a cost of nearly $250,000 each, although it has yet to fly any of the passengers. This year, the corporation plans two additional test missions before launching its commercial space tourism operation in 2022. But, as with any launch, that strategy is contingent on the results of Sunday’s test flight. The business has stated that vehicle inspections and weeks of post-mission data assessments will guide how it plans to proceed.
Bezos’ Blue Origin, which has yet to reveal its ticket price, and Musk’s SpaceX are both fighting for a piece of the space tourism pie. Blue Origin’s crew vehicle, like Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, is a suborbital capsule that launches vertically atop a 5-story-tall rocket and ascends to an altitude of 62 miles. Bezos’ brother Mark, aviation veteran Wally Funk, and the unidentified winner of a $28 million auction for a fourth ticket will be on board Blue Origin’s July 20th trip with Bezos, the company’s first to fly humans. SpaceX’s plans for space travel are much more complicated.
For about $55 million each seat, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will go into orbit for a few days.
In the weeks running up to Unity 22, there was a lot of competition in the space business. In a caustic tweet two days before Branson’s journey, Blue Origin claimed that Branson isn’t truly reaching space because SpaceShipTwo flies a few miles beyond the recognized space barrier by an international sports organization. On Saturday, Jeff Bezos expressed his support for Branson in an Instagram post, wishing him well. Musk has been pleasant throughout, staying out of the public eye and meeting with Branson in New Mexico.
“Thanks for being so typically supportive and such a good friend, Elon,” Branson tweeted to Musk on the eve of his flight.