Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and a crew of Virgin Galactic employees nailed a clean touchdown in New Mexico on Sunday after launching to space aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane. The mission, dubbed Unity 22, marked the fourth test flight to space for the vehicle and the first for Branson, the 70-year-old daredevil entrepreneur who’s been waiting over a decade for his debut trek to the edge of space.
The SpaceShipTwo plane, dubbed VSS Unity, took off at 10:40AM ET attached to the belly of Virgin Galactic’s twin-fuselage WhiteKnight plane. Unity dropped from the center of the carrier craft at an altitude of around 45,000 feet roughly 50 minutes after takeoff. Moments later VSS Unity ignited its single rocket engine to blast to the edge of space, reaching 53.5 miles above the ground. The crew basked in a few moments of weightlessness before gliding back to land in New Mexico at Spaceport America, the central hub for Virgin Galactic’s nascent space tourism business.
Branson shared congratulatory hand shakes with his fellow crew members as VSS Unity entered microgravity, later calling the flight “an experience of a lifetime,” as heard on plane’s choppy communications line to ground control. Once landed, Branson hopped out of VSS Unity and skipped toward a crowd of photographers, children, and relatives just outside Spaceport America. He could barely contain his excitement in a post-flight ceremony: “I was upside down a few minutes ago” he started.
“I think like most kids I have dreamt of this moment as a kid, but honestly nothing could prepare you for the view of Earth from space,” Branson said. Then, in full salesman mode, he called Virgin Galactic “the spaceline for Earth” and delivered on a promise to announce something “very exciting” after his flight: He revealed a partnership with fundraising company Omaze to give out two seats on VSS Unity, and — “with my Willy Wonka hat on,” he quipped — a personal tour of Spaceport America. “And I promise lots of chocolate in the factory,” he added.
Virgin Galactic president Mike Moses told reporters “the ship looked perfect” at touchdown, besides a possible antenna issue that caused a live video feed from inside the cabin to glitch during key moments of the flight.
Branson was “feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready” ahead of his flight to space, riding a bike to the spaceport before sunrise, flanked by two white Range Rovers. He said he started the morning off with a visit from Elon Musk, who was in New Mexico to watch the mission in person. Onboard SpaceShipTwo with Branson were two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, and three other crew members in the cabin: Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses, Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett, and Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations Sirisha Bandla. The crew tested out Virgin Galactic’s cabin experience.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield awarded Branson and the crew gold-colored pins to inaugurate their new status to Virgin Galactic as commercial astronauts, having flown above the 50-mile-line deemed to be space by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Branson’s flight was a golden opportunity to attract potential customers for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism business, so the atmosphere at Spaceport America on Sunday was full of marketing and theatrics. For attendees, the spaceport looked like a music festival, sitting next to the runway VMS Eve took off from. Dozens of guests watched the mission on a giant screen at the center of a stage set up just outside the main building of Spaceport America. Stephen Colbert hosted the mission’s livestream and singer-songwriter Khalid performed a new single on the stage. A fleet of Range Rovers towed VSS Unity back to Spaceport America after landing.
Space tourism ready for takeoff
Virgin Galactic previously planned to fly Branson as a passenger on a later test flight, but earlier this month the company announced he’d be bumped up to fly on Unity 22 as a crew member instead. That set Branson up to make it to space ahead of his rival Jeff Bezos, another billionaire who plans to fly his space company’s New Shepard rocket to the edge of space on July 20th. It’s a PR-heavy display of competition, but for Branson, who turns 71 on July 18th, it’s executing a decades-long dream to go to space. And for Virgin Galactic, flying its billionaire founder is seen as a show of confidence that SpaceShipTwo is safe for anyone to fly. In 2014, the company suffered a mid-flight disaster during a test flight that killed one pilot and severely injured another. After that flight, Branson vowed to travel on a future flight before the company started flying customers.
The Unity 22 mission marks a key step forward for the company’s development of SpaceShipTwo as it tries to lead a burgeoning space tourism market catered to wealthy adventure-seekers. Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004 and has already sold roughly 600 tickets priced around $250,000 a pop, but it hasn’t flown any of those passengers yet. The company has two more test missions planned this year before kicking off its commercial space tourism business in 2022. But like any launch, that plan hinges on the outcome of Sunday’s test flight. Vehicle inspections and weeks of post-mission data reviews will inform how it plans to move forward, the company has said.
Also vying for a slice of the space tourism market is Bezos’ Blue Origin — which hasn’t announced its ticket price point yet — and Musk’s SpaceX. Like Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, Blue Origin’s crew vehicle is suborbital, though it’s a gumdrop-shaped capsule that launches vertically atop a 5-story-tall rocket and ascends to an altitude of 62 miles. Blue Origin’s July 20th flight with Bezos, the company’s first to fly humans, will include Bezos’ brother Mark, aviation legend Wally Funk, and the undisclosed winner of a $28 million auction for a fourth seat. SpaceX’s space tourism plans are even more involved; its Crew Dragon capsule will launch to orbit for a few days for a price of roughly $55 million per seat.
The competitive space industry vibes flared in the weeks leading up to Unity 22. Blue Origin threw shade at Virgin Galactic in a snarky tweet two days before Branson’s flight, alleging Branson isn’t really reaching space because SpaceShipTwo flies a few miles below the boundary of space recognized by an international sports organization. Jeff Bezos had more positive vibes on Saturday, wishing Branson good luck in an Instagram post. Musk has been cordial throughout, keeping a distance from the PR war and meeting up with Branson in New Mexico. “Thanks for being so typically supportive and such a good friend, Elon,” Branson tweeted to Musk on the eve of his flight.