Sir Richard Branson, after nearly 17 years of development and over a billion of dollars invested in Virgin Galactic; achieved his dream and reached space.
Speaking from the spacecraft’s cabin, Branson called the spaceflight the “complete experience of a lifetime.”
“I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid, and honestly nothing could prepare you for the view of Earth from space,” Branson said after landing.
The company’s spacecraft VSS Unity launched above the skies of New Mexico on Sunday; with two pilots guiding the vehicle carrying the billionaire founder and three Virgin Galactic employees.
VSS Unity – after being released by a carrier aircraft called VMS Eve above 40,000 feet; – fired its rocket engine and accelerated to faster than three times the speed of sound in a climb to the edge of space.
VSS Unity then performed a slow backflip in microgravity; when the Virgin Galactic crew was weightless and floated around the spacecraft cabin.
The spacecraft reached an altitude of 86.1 kilometers (53.5 miles, or about 282,000 feet).
The vehicle then returned through the atmosphere in a glide; to land back at the runway of Spaceport America where it took off from earlier.
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Pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci flew Unity. Alongside Branson in the spacecraft’s cabin is chief astronaut trainer Beth Moses; lead operations engineer Colin Bennett, and VP of government affairs Sirisha Bandla. Both Mackay and Masucci have previously flown to space, as well as Moses and pilots C.J. Sturckow and Mark Stucky.
The U.S. officially considers pilots who have flown above 80 kilometers (or about 262,000 feet) to be astronauts.
VSS Unity is designed to hold up to six passengers along with the two pilots.
The company has about 600 reservations for tickets on future flights, sold at prices between $200,000 and $250,000 each.
“We’re here to make space more accessible to all at all,” Branson said after the flight. “The mission statement that I wrote inside my spacesuit was to turn the dream of space travel into a reality for my grandchildren … and for many people who are alive today, for everybody.”
The spaceflight goals
This was the fourth spaceflight to date for Virgin Galactic, its second so far this year, and the first carrying more than one passenger.
In addition to flying Branson, the spaceflight featured other goals, as Virgin Galactic is still testing its spacecraft system, aiming to begin commercial service in early 2022.
The four crew members are testing the spacecraft’s cabin and the training program Virgin Galactic has developed, to ensure it properly prepares customers for the experience. Additionally, Bandla will test out performing a research experiment, as she is performing an exercise with plants in test tubes for the University of Florida.
Sunday’s spaceflight is one of three remaining for Virgin Galactic to finish development, with two more expected this year.
A sweepstakes for others
Shortly after the spaceflight landed, Branson announced that Virgin Galactic partnered with sweepstakes company Omaze to offer a chance at two seats on “one of the first commercial Virgin Galactic spaceflights” early next year.
“You have a chance to go to space,” Branson said.
The sweepstakes requires a donation, which goes to a non-profit called Space For Humanity.
The billionaire added that he will put on his “Willy Wonka hat” to give the winners a guided tour of Spaceport America.
“It’s a way of just trying to get lots of people who couldn’t otherwise afford to go to space, to go to space,” Branson said.