SPACEPORT AMERICA, NM — Soaring more than 50 miles into the hot, glaringly bright skies above New Mexico, Richard Branson at last fulfilled a dream that took decades to realize: He can now call himself an astronaut.
On Sunday morning, a small rocket plane operated by Virgin Galactic, which Mr Branson founded in 2004, carried him and five others to the edge of space and back.
More than an hour later, a Mr. Branson took to the stage to celebrate. “The whole miracle,” he said.
Mr. Branson’s flight bolsters space enthusiasts’ hopes that routine travel to the frontier could eventually be available to private citizens, not just professional NASA astronauts and agencies Another spacewalker, another billionaire with his own rocket company – Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon – plans to make a similar game to the edge of space in nine days.
In each case, billionaire entrepreneurs are risking injury or death to fulfill their childhood aspirations – and advance the goal of making human flight extraordinary.
“They’re putting their money where their mouth is, and they’re putting their body where the money is,” said Eric Anderson, president of Space Adventures Limited, a company that specializes in launch services. where they’re at,” said Eric Anderson, president of Space Adventures Limited, a company that operates launches into orbit. “That’s impressive.”
At 8:40 a.m. mountain time, an aircraft carrier, with rocket aircraft, named VSS Unity, positioned below, lifted off the runway and headed for an altitude of about 45,000 feet. There, Unity was released, and a moment later, its rocket engine ignited, accelerating the space plane in an upward arc.
Although Unity has made three previous trips into space, this is its first launch like a full commercial flight of the kind that Virgin Galactic has promised to make available to the public, with two spacecraft. crew – David Mackay and Michael Masucci – and four more crew members including Mr. Branson.
This flight is like a party for Virgin Galactic and the fledgling space tourism business. Guests included Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX; Michelle Lujan Grisham, governor of New Mexico; and about 60 customers have already paid for Virgin Galactic flights in the future.
Stephen Colbert of the CBS show “The Late Show” featured segments of the webcast including several live videos from inside the spacecraft. After landing, Khalid performed a new song.
When the fuel was spent, Unity continued to coast upward to an altitude of 53.5 miles. The four people in the back showed no interest and spent about four minutes hovering before returning to their seats.
Mr. Branson was accompanied in the cabin by Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, principal operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research.
As the space plane re-entered the atmosphere, the downward gravitational pull resumed. Unity landed at the airport.
For more than a decade, Mr Branson, the venerable 70-year-old British billionaire who runs the Milky Way galaxy of Virgin companies, said he believes commercial flights will begin soon. So do about 600 Virgin Galactic customers, who have paid $200,000 or more for tickets to space and are still waiting. So do New Mexico taxpayers, who paid $220 million to build Spaceport America, a futuristic vision in the middle of the desert, to attract Branson’s company.
After years of unfulfilled promises, Virgin Galactic could begin flying its first paying passengers next year after two more test flights. But with tickets costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, this experience is still out of reach for most people right now.
Setting up a space exploration company is perhaps an unsurprising step for Mr. Branson, who has started – and is worth an estimated $6 billion – building flashy emerging businesses without he promotes with the ingenuity of a performer.
What became of his Virgin business empire began with a small record store in central London in the 1970s before Mr Branson turned it into Virgin Records, the home of artists such as the Sex Pistols and Peter. Gabriel and more. In 1984, he co-founded Virgin Atlantic to challenge British Airways.
Virgin Group has branched out into mobile phone services, passenger rail and hotels. Not all work perfectly. Two of his airlines filed for default during the pandemic last year, while few today remember his soft drinks, cosmetics or lingerie ventures.
The spaceflight company is a match for Mr. Branson’s penchant for high-altitude pursuits like skydiving and hot air ballooning. And unlike many of the Virgin Group businesses, Virgin Galactic is Mr Branson’s main focus.
Virgin Galactic joined the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 after merging with a publicly traded hedge fund, giving it a strong source of new funds to compete with pocket-sized rivals. deep — and public, with Mr. Branson marking his first trade at the exchange in one of the company’s flying suits.
Virgin Group holds a 24% stake in Virgin Galactic.
Virgin Galactic’s space plane is a scaled-down version of SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 won the US$10 million Ansari X Prize as the first reusable crewed spacecraft built by an NGO to send it to space twice in two weeks.
Initially, Mr. Branson predicted commercial flights would begin in 2007. But development of a larger vessel, the SpaceShipTwo, has dragged on.
The first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014, killing one of the pilots. Virgin Galactic was then started until Unity was completed a year and a half later.
In 2019, Virgin Galactic came close to another disaster when the seal on the rear horizontal stabilizer broke because a new thermal protective film had been improperly installed.
This year, the breakdown was revealed in the book “Challenging the Gods: The Virgin Galaxy and the Making of a Modern Astronaut” by Nicholas Schmidle, a staff writer for The New Yorker. The book quotes Todd Ericson, then vice president of safety and testing at Virgin Galactic, as saying, “I don’t know how we didn’t lose our vehicle and kill three people.
Mr. Bezos’ flight is to take place about 200 miles to the southeast of Spaceport America in Van Horn, Texas, where his rocket company, Blue Origin, launch its New Shepard rocket and capsule.
Although Blue Origin has yet to send anyone aboard the New Shepard, 15 successful tests of the fully automated system convinced the company to put Mr. Bezos on the first flight with the people on board.
He will be joined by his brother, Mark, and Mary Wallace Funk, an 82-year-old pilot. In the 1960s, she was among a group of women who passed the rigorous standards NASA used to select astronauts, but the space agency at the time was not interested in selecting women as astronauts. . A fourth unnamed passenger paid $28 million in an auction for one of the seats.
Neither Blue Origin nor Virgin Galactic’s flights were high enough or fast enough to enter orbit around Earth. Instead, these suborbital flights are like giant roller coasters that allow passengers to hover for several minutes while admiring a view of Earth against the black background of space.
Mr. Bezos’ company highlights competition with Virgin Galactic for space cruise passengers in a tweet on friday. Blue Origin highlighted differences between its New Shepard rocket and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo including the fact that New Shepard flies higher, above the altitude of 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, that is often regarded as the boundary of space. However, the United States Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration set the boundary at 50 miles.
The company also noted the size of the windows of the New Shepard capsule and called Virgin Galactic’s Unity “an high-altitude aircraft” as opposed to New Shepard’s rocket.
Mr. Bezos on Sunday congratulated Mr Branson and the crew on their flight. “Can’t wait to join the club!” he added in an Instagram post.
Blue Origin has yet to announce ticket prices and Virgin Galactic’s previously listed fare of $250,000 could go up. But on the Sunday following his trip, Mr Branson announced a sweepstakes that would give away two seats on a future Virgin Galactic flight.
Happy travelers won’t be the only passengers on future suborbital flights. Both companies are selling the flights to organizations including the Italian Air Force, where scientists will conduct experiments that take advantage of microgravity minutes.
The era of regular amateur astronauts in orbit could also begin next year. Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire, is essentially renting a rocket and spacecraft from SpaceX for a three-day trip to orbit scheduled for September.
In December, Space Adventures arranged for a Japanese fashion entrepreneur, Yusaku Maezawa, and Yozo Hirano, a production assistant, to launch a Russian Soyuz rocket on a 12-day mission to the Space Station. International.
Another company, Axiom Space in Houston, is arranging a private trip to the space station that will launch in January.
In-orbit flights are too expensive for anyone but the super-rich – three of Axiom’s customers are paying $55 million each – while suborbital flights may suit those just wealthier.
But how many people are willing to spend as much money as several houses for a few minutes of space travel?
Carissa Christensen, founder and chief executive officer of Bryce Space and Technology, an aerospace consulting firm, thinks there will be plenty. “Based on past ticket sales, surveys and interviews,” she said in an email, “we see strong demand signals for hundreds of passengers per year at current rates, with potentially thousands of people if prices drop significantly.”
Mr. Anderson of Space Adventures is less certain.
“Every minute it’s a thousand times more expensive than an orbital flight,” he said. “Is crazy.”
Two decades ago, Space Adventures sold suborbital flights that included a ticket to Miss Funk, who passed through Wally. Mr. Anderson said: “Wally Funk was one of our first customers. “That would be like 1998.”
Ticket price at that time was 98,000 USD.
At one point, about 200 people signed up for suborbital flights, but not a single orbital rocket company was promised to bring their spaceplanes close to flight. Space Adventures returned the money to Ms. Funk and the others.
Now, this unproven small orbit market has turned into a battle between billionaires – Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos.
“If anyone can make money and make the market work for suborbital, it is Branson and Bezos,” Mr. Anderson said. “They have reach and cache.”
Michael J. de la Merced and Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.