Virgin Galactic's Successful Test Flight — With Richard Branson on Board — Brings Us One Step Closer to Space Tourism
Sir Richard Branson has gone to infinity and back again.
On Sunday, the Virgin Group founder became the first billionaire to fly aboard his own spacecraft, Virgin Galactic's Unity 22, into space at an altitude of 53.5 miles, marking a major step in the future of commercial space tourism.
Though he claims it wasn't a race, this puts him in a gold-medal finish ahead of Jeff Bezos' planned July 20 flight on Blue Origin, as well as Elon Musk, who hasn't announced a date on his SpaceX. As proof of no ill will, Musk showed up to Branson's flight in New Mexico — and reportedly has paid a $10,000 deposit for a Virgin Galactic ticket.
"It was great this morning to find Elon in my kitchen at 3 a.m.," Branson, who shared a photo of a barefoot Musk with him on Instagram before the flight, said at the press conference. "It was so nice for him to come out of his way to wish us well — and I got a lovely goodwill message from Jeff as well."
After a 90-minute delay because of weather conditions, Branson took off at 8:40 a.m. local time from the 27-square-mile Spaceport America, located in the city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. This was the 22nd test flight of the VSS Unity, the name the late Stephen Hawking chose for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. The winged spacecraft's "feathering" design allows it to switch shapes and operate as a space capsule or a winged vehicle. For the launch, it was attached to a dual-fuselage jet aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo that served as the mothership, which Branson named the VMS Eve after his late mother.
Since this was a test flight, Branson served the role of evaluating the private astronaut experience. Along with him for the ride were three other Virgin Galactic employees who served as mission specialists, each with their own tasks: Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations, who tested research by performing a University of Florida experiment with handheld fixation tubes; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer, who looked at cabin equipment and procedures; and Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor, who had previously flown on Virgin Galactic's second-ever spaceflight in 2019 and oversaw the test flight objectives. In addition to the four mission specialists, the crew included pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci.
The flight started with a 45-minute climb on VSS Unity 22 attached to VMS Eve to about 50,000 feet. At about 9:25 a.m., Unity launched mid-air from Eve, traveling about three times the speed of sound at about 2,300 MPH. The crew soon experienced about three to four minutes of zero gravity before heading back to Spaceport America for a ground landing with a total flight time of about 90 minutes.
Upon a successful mission, singer Khalid hit the stage, premiering a new song, "New Normal," dedicated to the opening of the new frontier. "It's a dream to even be here — so thankful," the Grammy nominee said after his performance. "Look how far we've come just as humanity! That was so memorable, so historic, we went to space!"
After clearing a medical screening and reuniting with their families, the newly minted astronauts were awarded their astronaut wings in a celebration that also included the spraying of G.H. Mumm's signature Grand Cordon Champagne and Branson lifting Bandla onto his shoulders. During that ceremony, Branson announced a partnership with Omaze and Space for Humanity, launching a contest to give away two seats on one of Virgin Galactic's first commercial flights.
Virgin Galactic hopes to operate about 400 flights a year, which can each accommodate six passengers plus two pilots. Unity will start by carrying four passengers on each flight.
Thus far, about 600 people from 60 countries have reserved $250,000 tickets for their Virgin Galactic trips to space, and another 1,000 have put down a refundable $1,000 deposit for their spots. Among the future astronauts who have booked a spot are rumored to be Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Bieber, Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Katy Perry, and Brad Pitt. The price tag includes all the required space gear, including an Under Armour training suit, astronaut jacket, and a custom spacesuit with the astronaut's name and their home country's flag on it.
The required spaceflight training is anticipated to take three days, but former Walt Disney Imagineering exec Joseph Rohde is part of the team developing what will likely be a weeklong program that includes other highlights of the Las Cruces, New Mexico area, which has long been known for its space history because of its proximity to the White Sands Missile Range.
The area is revving up for the anticipated influx of space tourism, especially since Spaceport America doesn't currently have overnight accommodations, so future astronauts would likely need to commute from Las Cruces. "As a city, there has been consistent investment into many tourism-related areas of the city including arts and culture, with a newly established arts and cultural district, major upgrades at the airport, initiatives to support small local business and infrastructure projects throughout the city," Paul Dahlgren of Visit Las Cruces said.
Sunday's test crew also said they have pages of notes from their flight to make sure the experience will be optimal for commercial passengers. But for now, they're still on a high from their historic flight.
"It's so thrilling when it's a lifetime's dream come true," Branson said at the post-flight press conference, with a group of kids in attendance. "To the next generation of dreamers, if we can do this, just imagine what you can do!"