Sir Richard Branson stands on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) ahead of Virgin Galactic (SPCE) trading in New York, U.S., October 28, 2019.
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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 the speed of sound in a climb to the edge of space.
VSS Unity will then perform a slow backflip in microgravity, when the Virgin Galactic crew will be weightless and float around the spacecraft cabin. The spacecraft will then return through the atmosphere in a glide, to land back at the runway of Spaceport America where it took off from earlier.
VSS Unity is released from carrier aircraft VMS Eve during the launch of its third spaceflight on May 22, 2021.
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.
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.
Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, front center, gathers with Virgin Galactic employees in front of the new SpaceShip Two VSS Unity after a roll-out ceremony of the new aircraft at the Mojave Air and Space Port on February 19, 2016 in Mojave, Ca.
Ricky Carioti | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Branson has dreamed of going to space since watching the Apollo moon landings, and in 2004 founded Virgin Galactic to fly private passengers to space. He created the company to buy spacecraft built by aerospace designer Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, which created the SpaceShipOne vehicle that won a $10 million prize for flying twice to the edge of space within two weeks.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system came out of Branson’s deal with Scaled Composites. The spacecraft’s development has had multiple setbacks, however, including a rocket engine explosion on the ground in 2007 that killed three Scaled Composite employees and the crash of the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise, in 2014 that killed Virgin Galactic co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injured pilot Peter Siebold.
The company then built VSS Unity, designed with additional safety measures to prevent future accidents. Virgin Galactic began testing Unity in 2016 and, in December 2018, it reached space for the first time. Additionally, Virgin Galactic earlier this year rolled the next spacecraft in its fleet, VSS Imagine, which is the first of its next-generation SpaceShip III class of vehicles.
Last month Virgin Galactic received a license expansion from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, allowing the company to fly passengers on future spaceflights. The company completed a 29 element verification and validation program for the FAA, clearing the final two regulatory milestones with its most recent spaceflight test in May.
Branson was not previously expected to fly on Sunday’s spaceflight, as Virgin Galactic leadership had said the company planned to fly the founder on its second to last test flight. But after fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos announced he would fly on his company Blue Origin’s first passenger flight on July 20, Virgin Galactic rearranged its schedule — aiming to fly Branson nine days before Bezos.
Launching ahead of Bezos or Elon Musk, Sunday’s flight means Branson is the first of the billionaire space company founders to ride his own spacecraft.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are competing in the realm of suborbital space tourism, with both companies’ spacecraft carrying passengers to the edge of space to float in microgravity for a couple of minutes. An orbital flight, such as with Musk’s SpaceX, costs tens of millions of dollars and typically spends multiple days or weeks in space.
Branson’s company believes that there is a market to carry as much as 2 million people on suborbital spaceflights priced in the $250,000 to $500,000 range, with the market expanding if and when costs come down.