To infinity and beyond
British Billionaire Richard Branson who is nearly 71-year-old and the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways took a test flight to space along with five Virgin Galactic crew members on Sunday.
While the company has made manned test flights into space before, this was the first one on which Branson is tagging along, as well as the first flight with a full crew.
Branson had previously planned on sending himself to space later this summer, but moved up the date after fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos announced he would go to space on July 20.
The publicity stunt is aimed at boosting both the nearly 17-year-old Virgin Galactic and interest in the Unity22 projects.
Blue Origin which is Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’s spaceship company has downplayed the height of Branson’s test flight, claiming that because Unity22 will only reach 50 miles above the Earth, as opposed to 62 miles, it doesn’t count as “space.”
The debate of space
One expert told Space.com there is no single definition of “outer space.” And deciding where space begins is largely an exercise in pinpointing exactly where the Earth’s atmosphere becomes less troublesome than the Earth’s gravitational pull.
But there is no exact altitude where that happens.
The atmosphere thins out, but the “vacuum of space” is never really devoid of matter entirely. It’s a blurry line. …
While Branson and his crew won’t be going into orbit, they will be experiencing microgravity, as they freefall from the peak of their journey, very similar to what astronauts experience on the ISS.
Except they’re not moving at over 17,000 mph like the people on the ISS, so the SpaceShipTwo will come screaming back down to Earth rather than continuously circling the planet.
Branson’s flight today is expected to reach more than 50 miles high,
Branson’s flight today is expected to reach more than 50 miles high.
This is the altitude the U.S. government considers the beginning of outer space.
Bezos’s flight on July 20 will hit more than 62 miles high — also known as the Kármán line — which is the altitude internationally recognized as the boundary.
Exactly which is correct — the U.S.-accepted 50-mile mark or the internationally accepted 62-mile Kármán line — is widely debated and mostly arbitrary.
Branson tweeted out a shot of him and Tesla/SpaceX founder Elon Musk on Sunday morning:
In 2014, an earlier test flight of a SpaceShipTwo left a co pilot dead after the craft cashed soon after lift off.
As one prominent space blogger notes, there are still real risks involved today:
The space trip that Mr. Branson and five other crew members completed Sunday morning on a Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc.
Rocket plane lends credence to the company’s ability to safely take passengers to and from space.
Virgin Galactic, the company Mr. Branson founded, plans to initiate commercial service next year, charging passengers hundreds of thousands of dollars each for such flights.
The test flight was aimed at evaluating systems and the passenger experience, as well as providing additional validation of its safety.
Vehicles developed by private space companies have been tested a fraction of the number of times compared with the planes used by airlines.
Battle of the billionaires
Unity 22 will be Virgin Galactic’s fourth crewed spaceflight, while Bezos will be aboard the first crewed spaceflight for Blue Origin (though New Shepard has aced more than a dozen uncrewed suborbital test flights).
The most recently stated price for a Virgin Galactic seat was $250,000, and more than 700 people have put down a deposit, company representatives have said.
At 8:40 a.m. local time (10:40 a.m. EDT; 1440 GMT), the crew of Unity 22 test flight mission took off from the company’s facility in New Mexico and flew just above the boundary of space, where the four passengers and two pilots experienced about four minutes of weightlessness.
It was “the experience of a lifetime,” Branson said during a live broadcast of the flight. Branson, designated “Astronaut 001” for the Unity 22 mission, founded the Virgin Group of companies that includes Virgin Galactic.
The vehicle, named VSS Unity, made a successful, crewed suborbital test flight to 282,000 feet (86 kilometers) above Earth’s surface before gliding back down to Spaceport America for a smooth runway landing.
This test flight is the company’s fourth crewed spaceflight but the first to carry a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists.
In addition to Branson, the crew that flew today included Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennet, the lead operations engineer at the company; and Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research operations.
Pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci rounded out the team.
The Unity 22 mission lifted off from Spaceport America with the company’s spaceplane climbing to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) with the help of its “mothership” VMS Eve, a WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane.
After reaching this altitude, VMS Eve let the space plane go and from there it rocketed up to 53 miles (86 km) above Earth’s surface before returning to Earth and landing not too far from where it took off at Spaceport America.
Virgin Galactic invited a crowd of guests to the launch, including customers with reservations for future flights (they’re paying $250,000 a seat for the trip).
One friend of Branson’s, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk, was in the audience and Singer Khalid debuted his new single “New Normal” after landing (Branson and his crew got to listen to it during their glide back to Earth), and comedian Stephen Colbert of The Late Show hosted the company’s live webcast.
Branson even announced a new partnership between Virgin Galactic and Omaze to raffle off two free tickets to space.
Finally, the first time flyers — Bandla, Branson and Bennett — each got special Virgin Galactic astronaut wings with a tiny SpaceShipTwo on them.
We’ve been to space, everybody! ” Branson cheered during a post-flight press conference. “So thrilling when a lifetime’s dream comes true.”
An early look at VSS Unity suggests a very smooth flight, said Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic’s president of space missions and safety. About the only glitch was some garbled video and audio from inside the passenger cabin, which may be an antenna blockage issue, he said.
“Everything looked perfect in real time,” Moses said, adding that a quick walkaround the vehicle revealed few flaws. “The ship looks pristine — no issues whatsoever.”
Virgin Galactic aimed for the crew to evaluate the “private astronaut experience,” The flight focused on “cabin and customer experience objectives,” the statement shared, which include evaluating comfort and what the cabin feels like with a full crew, the experience of being weightless and viewing Earth from space.
The were demonstrating how the crew might conduct research experiments and seeing how well the crew’s training at Spaceport America prepared them for the mission.
Following this successful launch and landing, the crew will now inspect the vehicles and begin an extensive data review, according to the same statement.
This review will help to inform the company’s flight program and future missions like this. Virgin Galactic is aiming to launch two more crewed test flights before beginning full commercial service in 2022.
For Virgin Galactic, today’s launch was a major milestone. Branson founded the company in 2004 after SpaceShipOne, a vehicle built by the company Scaled Composites and financed by the late billionaire Paul Allen, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for reusable commercial spaceflight.
Branson tapped Scaled Composites to design SpaceShipTwo and its carrier plane, but the road to astronaut launches has been slow and painful.
A fatal ground accident in 2007 killed three Scaled Composites employees and in 2014, Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo, the VSS Enterprise, broke apart during a powered test flight.
That tragic accident, attributed to pilot error, killed one pilot and seriously injured another, leading Virgin Galactic to develop new safety systems to prevent it from happening again.
With today’s flight, Virgin Galactic appears to be poised to meet its 2022 target for passenger flight.