Virgin Galactic: Why Richard Branson's flight really does mean a "new space age"

Richard Branson, the founder of spaceflight firm Virgin Galactic, successfully went to space for the first time.

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Richard Branson in space
Virgin Galactic

He’s finally done it: nearly two decades after founding Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson has flown into space in one of the firm’s vehicles.

On Sunday at around 10:40 a.m. Eastern time, the VSS Unity spaceship launched. It was its 22nd test flight and first with a full crew: two pilots and four cabin passengers. The feat comes just seven days before Branson’s 71st birthday. By comparison, Jeff Bezos is 57 and Elon Musk is 50.

Amid Branson’s message to “all the kids down there” was a message for the world’s richest adults: space tourism is about to be open for business. Sunday’s flight puts Virgin Galactic on target to take up customers in 2022, a voyage that costs $250,000 per passenger.

From a Khalid performance to Stephen Colbert hosting, Branson’s trip to space was different from a NASA mission in both objectives and vibes: space is now available to wealthy thrill-seekers, not just those with the “right stuff.”

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What’s new — As with previous flights, the VMS Eve aircraft took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico carrying the spaceship. The aircraft released the spaceship at an altitude of just under nine miles around 11:25 a.m. before accelerating to a speed of Mach 3 — or three times the speed of sound — before reaching its maximum altitude of 53.5 miles.

Five minutes after the spaceship was first released, the VSS Unity ship returned to subsonic speeds during its reentry. The ship landed in New Mexico just over 14 minutes after its launch.

Richard Branson shared a message while experiencing zero gravity.

The feat means Branson reached space by the definition used by several organizations including NASA — and it means he got there before Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos or SpaceX’s Elon Musk.

During the flight, a jubilant Branson peered out of the cabin’s circular window with a giant grin on his face.

“To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars,” Branson said during his flight. “Now I’m an adult in a spaceship with lots of other wonderful adults looking down to our beautiful, beautiful Earth.”

Who were the passengers on Unity 22?

The ship carried four crew members:

  1. Branson himself, who was there to evaluate the experience for astronauts.
  2. Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations. Bandla used an experiment from the University of Florida during the flight to demonstrate the firm’s research abilities.
  3. Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer at Virgin Galactic. Bennett was tasked with evaluating cabin equipment and procedures during launch and weightlessness.
  4. Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor. Moses worked as cabin lead, ensuring the objectives of the other three were completed.

The four were presented with astronaut wings after the event by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. Hadfield famously performed David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” onboard the International Space Station in 2013.

The VSS Unity ship was flown by Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, while the VMS Eve aircraft was piloted by CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer. Machay is the first Scot to fly in space.

The VSS Unity crew. Left to right: Mackay, Bennett, Moses, Branson, Bandla, Masucci.

Virgin Galactic

Did Branson actually go to space?

Branson has now reached space before Bezos, founder of spaceflight tourism firm Blue Origin. On June 7, Bezos announced that he would fly on the firm’s first crewed mission scheduled for July 20. That mission was overshadowed when Virgin Galactic announced the Unity 22 mission on July 1.

But the discussion will likely continue over whether Branson actually went to space, and whether Bezos might actually get there first. Virgin Galactic’s flight reached an altitude of 53.5 miles, while Blue Origin reached 66 miles in its January 2021 test flight.

Although NASA and the United States Air Force recognize the start of space as 50 miles altitude, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale considers space to start at 62 miles. The FAI describes this boundary as the “Kármán line.”

Richard Branson flew into space on a Virgin Galactic vessel.

Virgin Galactic / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There is a discussion about whether the Kármán line should be lower. Its creator Theodore von Kármán first suggested there is a line where aerodynamic forces give way to orbital forces. But astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell argued in an October 2020 article that this definition means the line is closer to 50 miles altitude.

For SpaceX, there is less uncertainty. The firm first sent astronauts to the International Space Station, at 250 miles altitude, in May 2020. But while the firm has plans to launch its first private crew flight later this year, CEO Elon Musk currently has no public plans to fly on a SpaceX launch.

What comes next — Virgin Galactic plans to host two more test flights this year, before starting commercial services as early as next year.

“Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”

The firm set a price of $200,000 per ticket in 2005, before raising it to $250,000 in 2013. Company filings showed last month the firm has sold around 600 tickets to people from 58 countries, a list expected to include a number of celebrities. Virgin Galactic halted ticket sales in December 2018 after VSS Unity first reached space, and it is unclear when they will resume.

Branson’s $250,000 tickets seem like a bargain compared to Blue Origin — a ticket on the first flight sold at auction last month for an eye-watering $28 million. Pricing for Blue Origin’s subsequent flights has yet to be announced.

Regardless of the price tag, Branson’s flight sends a clear message: if you’ve got the money, space is open and ready.


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