SPACEPORT AMERICA, NM – Richard Branson towered more than 50 miles into the hot, glistening sky over New Mexico and finally fulfilled a dream that took decades to come true: He can now call himself an astronaut.
On Sunday morning, a small Virgin Galactic rocket plane, which Branson founded in 2004, took him and five other people to the edge of space and back.
More than an hour later, Mr. Branson took the stage to celebrate. “The whole thing was magical,” he said.
Mr Branson’s flight strengthens the hopes of space enthusiasts that private individuals and not just professional astronauts from NASA and other space agencies will soon be able to make routine trips to the final frontier. Another billionaire with his own rocket company – Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon – plans to take a similar trip to the edge of space in nine days.
Either way, billionaire entrepreneurs risk injury or death to fulfill their childhood dreams – and advance the goal of making human spaceflight extraordinary.
“They put their money where their mouth is and they put their body where their money is,” said Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures Limited, an orbit charter company. “To be honest, that’s impressive.”
At 8:40 a.m. mountain time, a carrier aircraft with the VSS Unity rocket plane hidden beneath it stepped off the runway and flew to an altitude of approximately 45,000 feet. There Unity was released, and moments later its rocket motor ignited and accelerated the spacecraft in an upward arc.
Although Unity had previously made three space trips, this was its first launch, which resembled a full commercial flight that Virgin Galactic has promised to the public, with two pilots – David Mackay and Michael Masucci – and four other crew members including Mr Branson.
That flight was like a party for Virgin Galactic and the nascent space tourism business. Guests included Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX; Michelle Lujan Grisham, the governor of New Mexico; and approximately 60 customers who have paid for future Virgin Galactic flights.
Stephen Colbert, on CBS’s “The Late Show,” presented sections of the webcast that included some live video from the spaceship. After landing, Khalid played a new song.
When the fuel ran out, Unity continued to travel to an altitude of 83.5 miles. The four people in the rear unbuckled their seatbelts and experienced levitation for about four minutes before returning to their seats.
Mr. Branson was accompanied in the cabin by Beth Moses, the company’s senior astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, chief operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.
When the spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere, gravity increased again downwards. Unity slid back to a landing at the spaceport.
For more than a decade, Mr Branson, the disrespectful 70-year-old British billionaire who runs a galaxy of Virgin companies, has said he believes commercial flights are about to begin. So do the roughly 600 Virgin Galactic customers who paid $ 200,000 or more for their space tickets and are still waiting. So did the New Mexico taxpayers, who paid $ 220 million to build Spaceport America, a futuristic vision in the middle of the desert to attract Mr. Branson’s company.
After years and years of unfulfilled promises, Virgin Galactic could fly its first paying passengers next year after two more test flights. But with tickets costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, that experience will stay out of financial reach for most people for now.
Starting a space exploration company was perhaps an unsurprising move for Mr. Branson, who has made a career – and an estimated $ 6 billion fortune – and built eye-catching, up-and-coming businesses that he promotes with the flair of a showman.
What became his Virgin business empire began with a small record store in central London in the 1970s before Mr. Branson moved it to Virgin Records, home to acts like the Sex Pistols, Peter Gabriel and others. In 1984 he co-founded Virgin Atlantic to challenge British Airways.
The Virgin Group split into a cell phone service, a passenger train and a hotel chain. Not all of them worked properly. Two of its airlines filed for bankruptcy during the pandemic last year, while today few remember its ventures in the soft drinks, cosmetics or lingerie sectors.
The space company was in line with Mr. Branson’s penchant for high-flying endeavors like skydiving and hot air balloon rides. And unlike many of the Virgin Group’s businesses, Virgin Galactic was a major focus of Mr. Branson.
Virgin Galactic joined the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 after merging one of the company’s flight suits with a publicly traded mutual fund.
The Virgin Group holds a 24 percent stake in Virgin Galactic.
Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane is an enlarged version of SpaceShipOne, the 2004 first reusable manned spacecraft built by a non-governmental organization to make it into space twice in two weeks, winning the Ansari-X prize of 10 million US dollars received.
Mr. Branson originally predicted that commercial flights would begin by 2007. But the development of the larger spaceship SpaceShipTwo dragged on.
The first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014, killing one of the pilots. Virgin Galactic was then grounded until Unity was completed a year and a half later.
In 2019, Virgin Galactic was on the verge of yet another disaster when a seal on a rear tailplane burst because a new thermal barrier was improperly installed.
The mishap was revealed this year in the book “Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut” by Nicholas Schmidle, an employee of the New Yorker. The book quotes Todd Ericson, then Vice President of Safety and Testing at Virgin Galactic, as saying, “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and killed three people.”
Mr Bezos’ flight is scheduled to take place approximately 200 miles southeast of Spaceport America in Van Horn, Texas, where his rocket company Blue Origin launches its New Shepard rocket and capsule.
Although Blue Origin has not yet flown people on New Shepard, 15 successful tests of the fully automated system convinced the company that it would be safe to get Mr Bezos on the first flight with people on board.
He is accompanied by his brother Mark and Mary Wallace Funk, an 82-year-old pilot. In the 1960s, she was one of a group of women who met the same strict criteria NASA used when selecting astronauts, but the then space agency had no interest in choosing women as astronauts. A fourth unnamed passenger paid $ 28 million in an auction for one of the seats.
Neither Blue Origin nor Virgin Galactic flights fly high enough or fast enough to enter Earth orbit. These suborbital flights are more like giant roller coaster rides, allowing passengers to hover for a few minutes while admiring the view of Earth against the black backdrop of space.
Mr Bezos’ company in a tweet on Friday highlighted the rivalry with Virgin Galactic for space tourism passengers. Blue Origin highlighted the differences between its New Shepard rocket and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, including the fact that New Shepard flies higher, over an altitude of 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, which is often viewed as the limit of space. However, the U.S. Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration have set the limit at 50 miles.
The company also noted the size of the windows on the New Shepard capsule, calling Virgin Galactic’s Unity “a high-altitude aircraft” as opposed to the New Shepard rocket.
Mr Bezos congratulated Mr Branson and his crew on their flight on Sunday. “I can’t wait to join the club!” he added in an Instagram post.
Blue Origin has yet to announce a ticket price, and the $ 250,000 price previously quoted by Virgin Galactic could go up. But on the Sunday following his trip, Mr Branson announced a sweepstakes to give away two seats on a future Virgin Galactic flight.
Tourists who enjoy driving will not be the only passengers on future suborbital flights. Both companies sell flights to organizations like the Italian Air Force, where scientists will conduct experiments using the minutes of microgravity.
The era of non-professional astronauts who regularly fly into orbit could also begin in the coming year. Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire, is essentially chartering a rocket and spacecraft from SpaceX for a three-day trip to orbit slated for September.
In December, Space Adventures arranged for a Japanese fashion entrepreneur, Yusaku Maezawa, and Yozo Hirano, a production assistant, to launch a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station on a 12-day mission.
Another company, Axiom Space in Houston, is arranging a separate trip to the space station, which will start as early as January.
Orbital flights are too expensive for everyone but the super-rich – Axiom’s three customers are paying $ 55 million each – while suborbital flights might be affordable for those who only make good money.
But how many people are willing to spend as much as some houses cost on a few minutes of space travel?
Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, an aerospace consulting firm, believes there will be many. “Based on previous ticket sales, surveys and interviews,” she said in an email, “we are seeing strong demand signals for several hundred passengers a year at current prices, with potential for thousands if prices drop significantly.”
Mr. Anderson of Space Adventures is less sure about that.
“It’s a thousand times more expensive per minute than an orbital flight,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
Two decades ago, Space Adventures sold suborbital flights, including a ticket for Ms. Funk, who was owned by Wally. “Wally Funk was one of our first customers,” said Anderson. “That would have been like 1998.”
The ticket price at the time was $ 98,000.
At one point, about 200 people signed up for suborbital flights, but none of the promised suborbital missile companies were able to get their spaceplanes close to the flight. Space Adventures returned the money to Ms. Funk and the others.
Now this unproven suborbital market has been reduced to a battle of billionaires – Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos.
“If anyone can make money and get the suborbital market up and running, it’s Branson and Bezos,” said Anderson. “You have the range and the seal of approval.”
Michael J. de la Merced and Neil Vigdor contributed to the coverage.