British billionaire Richard Branson on Sunday soared more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane and safely returned in the vehicle’s first fully crewed test flight to space, a symbolic milestone for a venture he started 17 years ago.
Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees strapped in for the ride, touted the mission as a precursor to a new era of space tourism, with the company he founded in 2004 poised to begin commercial operations next year.
“We’re here to make space more accessible to all,” an exuberant Branson, 70, said shortly after embracing his grandchildren following the flight. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”
The success of the flight also gave the flamboyant entrepreneur bragging rights in a highly publicized rivalry with fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, the Amazon online retail mogul who had hoped to fly into space first aboard his own space company’s rocket.
“Congratulations on the flight,” Bezos said on Instagram. “Can’t wait to join the club!”
Space industry executives, future customers and other well-wishers were on hand for a festive gathering to witness the launch, which was livestreamed. Joining the reception was another billionaire space industry pioneer, Elon Musk, who is also founder of electric carmaker Tesla Inc.
Reaching its high-altitude launch point at about 46,000 feet, the VSS Unity passenger rocket plane was released from the mothership and fell away as the crew ignited its rocket, sending it streaking straight upward at supersonic speed to the blackness of space some 86 km high.
At the apex of the climb with the rocket shut down, the crew then experienced a few minutes of microgravity, before the spaceplane shifted into re-entry mode, and began a gliding descent to a runway back at the spaceport. The entire flight lasted about an hour.
The spaceplane’s two pilots were Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci. The three other mission specialists were Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Virgin Galactic’s lead operations engineer Colin Bennett; and Sirisha Bandla, a research operations and government affairs vice president.
All recounted afterward being mesmerized by the view through Unity’s windows. Mackay described the immense blackness of space against the brightness of Earth’s surface, “separated by the beautiful blue atmosphere, which is very complex and very thin.”
Virgin Galactic has said it plans at least two further test flights of the spaceplane in the months ahead before beginning regular commercial operation in 2022.
Company CEO Michael Colglazier said 600 wealthy would-be citizen astronauts have also booked reservations, priced at around $250,000 per ticket for the exhilaration of supersonic flight, weightlessness and the spectacle of spaceflight.
Branson has said he aims ultimately to lower the price to around $40,000 per seat as the company ramps up service, achieving greater economies of scale. Colglazier said he envisions eventually building a large enough fleet to accommodate roughly 400 flights annually at the spaceport.
The Swiss-based investment bank UBS has estimated the potential value of the space tourism market reaching $3 billion annually by 2030.
Proving rocket travel safe for the public is key.
An earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.