Virgin Galactic has successfully launched its first passengers into space, including its billionaire founder Richard Branson. The event at Spaceport America in New Mexico was a big day for the press and staff, complete with an early morning Khalid set and a hero walk by Branson and the crew.
“Imagine a world where people of all ages, backgrounds, everywhere, sex, ethnicity have equal access to space,” said Branson upon his return. “Welcome to the beginning of a new space age!”
It’s a bit premature to say, of course – this world is still a long way off, but it’s true that this flight marks a historic moment in the burgeoning space tourism industry. At the moment, recreational boaters are still an elite class, but the events of the day suggest that we are closer than ever to that change.
After an incredibly early start to the day (shuttles to Spaceport departing at 2:45 a.m. from nearby Las Cruces), the real space launch-style celebrations began with a delay. An overnight thunderstorm prevented the team from rolling out the spacecraft, which may or may not get wet. When it comes to speeds and temperatures, nothing should be left to chance – like ice formation due to water in or on the chassis.
Soon the sun was rising and crowds began to arrive: VIPs, employees, a number of local students, and Branson’s own guest list (reportedly around 150). Elon Musk has also shown up, presumably to personally congratulate his fellow astronaut, billionaire to billionaire.
At 8:30 am local time, the engines started on VMS Eve, the “mother ship” with VSS Unity, the rocket-powered spaceplane that Branson would drive to the edge of space with Virgin Galactics Beth Moses (their second flight), Sirisha Bandla and Colin Bennett.
Eve was on the wheels at 8:40 a.m. and began to wait on the ground as he climbed to about 36,000 feet. Unity broke up and began its rocket propelled ascent at about 9:24 a.m., hit Mach 3, and in two minutes it peaked at about 282,000 feet – about 53 miles as planned.
The crew and passengers enjoyed a minute or two of weightlessness, which they apparently used profitably:
A scheduled airborne speech by Branson proved impossible as the signal switched on and off, but the ship itself proved more reliable and landed at 9:38 a.m.
In a celebratory stage appearance (after a short Khalid concert), Branson expanded the ideas that were neglected in the broadcast, starting with, “It’s hot, I’m sorry,” but quickly into more inspiring words. “I’ve dreamed of this moment since I was a child, but nothing could have prepared me for a view of the earth from space. We are at the forefront of a new space age. “
At a press conference shortly thereafter, Branson answered questions from elementary school students, and the crew described the view from space and whether they saw planets. (No, just an alien the pilot shook off while descending, Branson said. At least one child I saw believed him.)
A long way into space
It’s a triumph for Virgin Galactic and Branson that has long been in the making. The company was ahead of the curve in its space tourism ambitions, but in 2014 a test flight resulted in a terrible crash and the death of one of the pilots.
However, Virgin engineers and guides worked on it and built a stronger, better spaceship, which was named Unity by Stephen Hawking, who was then alive – and, unsurprisingly, hoped to go one day.
Over the years, pilots flew test flight after test flight, slowly increasing their performance and finally touching the edge of space in 2018. There is some slight controversy in this regard as the exact altitude at which the atmosphere gives way to space is not fully understood. Some authorities place the Kármán Line, as the imaginary limit is called, at 100 kilometers above sea level, others at 50 miles, or about 80 kilometers.
Virgin uses the lower estimate while their arch-rival Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin uses the higher. As a result, Bezos cast shadows on Virgins flights, saying he didn’t want his customers to have an “asterisk” on their journey into space. When I asked about this earlier, a Virgin representative said they use the same standard as NASA and the US Air Force: pilots get their “astronaut wings” when they cross the 50-mile mark.
Kármán jokes aside, the race to get passengers into space has intensified lately, and Bezos recently announced that he will be flying aboard Blue Origin’s first manned launch of the New Shepard rocket on July 22nd – with his brother, a mysterious passenger, who paid $ 28 million for the privilege; and Wally Funk, one of the first women to be trained as astronauts in 1961 but never made it into space.
But Branson rained on his parade, announcing shortly after that he would be flying into space aboard Virgin’s first passenger launch about a week earlier (crew and pilots were up multiple times).
While Branson has good-naturedly denied any competition between him and Bezos (“We wish Jeff the best,” he said, adding that Bezos sent a message of goodwill before the flight), but it’s hard to believe completely true is. While neither of the two has anything to prove at this point, Branson must surely have some satisfaction in not just traveling into space (a lifelong dream as he relates it) but doing so in front of his rising rival. As much as he denies it, the narrative is too tempting to suppress entirely.
The direction ahead for Virgin Galactic is now clearly in the direction of paying customers, of whom there are many. They all have a quarter of a million dollars to spare, of course, but maybe not, and Branson has a special offer for you. You’ve teamed up with Omaze and donations to the charity you choose will take you into a kind of raffle where the winner will receive two tickets to an upcoming Virgin Galactic flight. “And with my Willy Wonka hat on, a guided tour of Spaceport America that was really given by you,” added Branson.
Branson expressed hope that this would last as long as donations continue. Perhaps this is the answer to the question of how they hope, as he so often promises, to provide space everyone.
You can follow the full day on Virgin Galactic’s archived livestream below: