British billionaire Richard Branson on Sunday rocketed more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane and returned in the vehicle’s first fully crewed test flight to space. It was a symbolic milestone and an exciting day for the media as well as the employees at the launch of the company’s first passengers into space.
“Just imagine a world where people of all ages, all backgrounds, from anywhere, of any gender, of any ethnicity, have equal access to space,” Branson said on returning. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age!”
The space festivities began a little late than scheduled, the Spaceport left at 2:45 AM from nearby Las Cruces. However, with the weather change involved, the team could not take a chance.
A festive gathering of space industry executives, future customers and other well-wishers were on hand to witness Sunday’s launch, live-streamed in a presentation hosted by late-night television comedian Stephen Colbert. Among those present was fellow billionaire and space industry pioneer Elon Musk.
At 8:30 local time, the engines started on VMS Eve, the “mothership” carrying VSS Unity, the spaceplane that Branson along with Beth Moses, Sirisha Bandla, and Colin Bennett would ride to a new era of space tourism.
The spaceplane Eve was up in the sky at 8:40, and it climbed to about 36,000 feet. The rocket-powered spaceplane started its climb at around 9:24, reaching Mach 3 and after two minutes reached its peak altitude of about 282,000 feet — about 53 miles, as intended.
The spaceplane’s contrail was clearly visible from the ground as it soared through the upper atmosphere to the crowd’s cheers below.
Touchdown occurred about 9:38 am local time (15:40 GMT), roughly an hour after take-off. Branson planned a mid-air speech, but due to inadequate signals, he could not devise his plan.
In a special stage presence following a concert by DJ Khaled, Branson communicated with the audience, saying: “It’s hot, I’m sorry,” but quickly moving on to more inspiring words. “I have dreamt about this moment since I was a child, but nothing could have prepared me for the view of Earth from space. We are at the vanguard of a new space age.”
A press conference commenced shortly after, Branson returned questions from elementary schoolers, and the crew shared their experience aboard.
It’s a success long in the making for Virgin Galactic and Branson. 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.
But this time, the engineers worked even harder to build a better aircraft that would fulfil their dream. It was christened by Stephen Hawking, who was then still living and, of course, hoping to get a ride in the future.
Space analyst Leo Enright said, “the flight could not have gone any smoother” and would give “an enormous boost of public confidence” to Branson’s space enterprise, reported by Al-Jazeera.
The flight’s success on Sunday also boasted Branson’s attitude in a highly publicised rivalry with fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, the Amazon online retail magnate who had hoped to fly into space first aboard his own space company’s suborbital rocketship, the New Shepard, later this month.
“Congratulations on the flight,” Bezos said on Instagram. “Can’t wait to join the club!”
During Branson’s press conference, he insisted that he and Bezos are friendly rivals and were not racing to beat one another into space.
Virgin Galactic’s plans are quite clear now as it requires at least two further test flights of the spaceplane in the months ahead before beginning regular commercial operations in 2022. However, they have partnered with Omaze, and donations to the chosen charity will enrol you into a raffle of sorts, with the winner receiving two tickets on an upcoming Virgin Galactic flight. “And with my Willy Wonka hat on, a guided tour of Spaceport America, given by yours truly,” Branson added.
Branson hopes that this would continue to become a thing as long as donations go on, and he will try his best to make the space available to everyone.
You can watch the whole event in Virgin Galactic’s archived livestream below: