Billionaire Branson soars to space aboard Virgin Galactic flight

Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson departs with his crew prior to boarding, for travel to the edge of space in Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity. Source: Reuters

LOS ANGELES: 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 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 in a presentation hosted by late-night television comedian Stephen Colbert.

Joining the reception was another billionaire space industry pioneer, Elon Musk, who is also founder of electric carmaker Tesla. Grammy-nominated R&B singer Khalid performed his forthcoming single “New Normal” after the flight.

The gleaming white spaceplane was carried aloft attached to the underside of the dual-fuselage jet VMS Eve (named for Branson’s late mother) from Spaceport America, a state-owned facility near the aptly named town of Truth or Consequences. Virgin Galactic leases a large section of the facility.

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 53 miles (86 km) high.

The spaceplane’s contrail was clearly visible from the ground as it soared through the upper atmosphere, to the cheers of the crowd below.

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.

Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity, carrying Richard Branson and crew. Source: Reuters.
Virgin Galactic’s passenger rocket plane VSS Unity, carrying Richard Branson and crew. Source: Reuters.

“I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth,” Branson said in a video from space.

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. One of those flights will carry four Italian astronauts-in-training, according to company CEO Michael Colglazier.

He said 600 wealthy would-be citizen astronauts have also booked reservations, priced at around $250,000 per ticket for the exhilaration of supersonic flight. Branson has said he aims ultimately to lower the price to around $40,000 per seat as the company ramps up service.

Branson’s participation in Sunday’s flight, announced just over a week ago, typified his persona as the daredevil executive whose various Virgin brands – from airlines to music companies – have long been associated with his ocean-crossing exploits in sailboats and hot-air balloons.

His ride-along also upstaged rival astro-tourism venture Blue Origin and its founder, Bezos, in what has been popularized as the “billionaire space race.”

Bezos has been planning to fly aboard his own suborbital rocketship, the New Shepard, later this month. Branson has insisted he and Bezos are friendly rivals and were not racing to beat one another into space.