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Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson flies own rocket to space

In his boldest adventure yet, thrill-seeking British billionaire joins five company employees to reach the edge of space high above the New Mexico desert.

Billionaire Richard Branson and crew are seen on board Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity before starting their untethered ascent to the edge of space, New Mexico, on July 11, 2021.
Billionaire Richard Branson and crew are seen on board Virgin Galactic’s passenger rocket plane VSS Unity before starting their untethered ascent to the edge of space, New Mexico, on July 11, 2021. (Reuters)

Swashbuckling entrepreneur Richard Branson has hurtled into space aboard his own winged rocket ship in his boldest adventure yet, beating out fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos.

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The nearly 71-year-old Branson and five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space tourism company on Sunday reached an altitude of about 88 kilometres over the New Mexico desert, enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth, and then safely glided back home to a runway landing.

“Seventeen years of hard work to get us this far,” a jubilant Branson said as he congratulated his team on the trip back.

Branson became the first person to blast off in his own spaceship, beating Bezos by nine days.

He also became only the second septuagenarian to depart for space. John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.

With about 500 people watching, including Branson’s wife, children and grandchildren, a twin-fuselage aircraft with his space plane attached underneath took off in the first stage of the flight.

The space plane then detached from the mother ship at an altitude of about 13 km and fired its engine, reaching the edge of space at about 88 km up.

Branson has touted the flight as a precursor to a new era of space tourism, with the company he founded poised to begin commercial operations next year.

Sunday’s launch of the VSS Unity rocket plane marked the company’s 22nd test flight of its SpaceShipTwo system, and its fourth crewed mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

It was also the first to carry a full complement of space travelers – two pilots and four “mission specialists,” Branson among them.

Branson arrives at spaceport on bicycle

A week away from his 71st birthday, Branson and his crewmates walked onto the tarmac of New Mexico’s Spaceport America waving to a throng of onlookers before boarding Land Rovers for a short drive to the waiting Unity rocket plane parked at the end of a taxiway.

Video posted online by Virgin Galactic showed Branson arriving at the spaceport on his bicycle and greeting his crewmates with a hug.

A festive gathering of space industry executives, future customers, and other well-wishers were on hand to witness the launch event, which was to be live-streamed in a presentation introduced by late-night television host Stephen Colbert.

Among those present was fellow billionaire and space industry pioneer Elon Musk, who also is founder of electric carmaker Tesla Inc.

Grammy-nominated R&B singer Khalid was due to take the stage after the flight to perform a forthcoming single “New Normal.”

Entire flight will take 90 minutes

Takeoff from New Mexico’s state-owned Spaceport of America, located near the aptly named desert town of Truth or Consequences, was set for around1430 GMT, following a 90-minute scheduling delay due to overnight thunderstorms.

The gleaming white spaceplane was borne aloft attached to the underside of a specially designed twin-fuselage carrier jet VMS Eve – named for Branson’s late mother.

Separating from the mothership at an altitude of 50,000 feet, Unity’s rocket engine then ignited to send the spaceplane streaking straight upward to the blackness of space some 88.5 km high, where the crew experienced about four minutes of microgravity.

With the engine shutting down near the peak of its climb, the craft then shifted into re-entry mode before gliding back to a runway landing at the spaceport.

High-cost tickets

Virgin has plans for two further test flights of the spaceplane in the months ahead before beginning regular commercial operation in 2022.

This is no discount travel service. But demand is apparently strong, with several hundred wealthy would-be citizen astronauts already having booked reservations, priced at around $250,000 per ticket.

The Swiss-based investment bank UBS has estimated the potential value of the space tourism market to reach $3 billion annually by 2030.

Proving rocket travel safe for the public is key, given the inherent dangers of spaceflight.

An earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.

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

Astro-tourism venture

His ride-along also upstages rival astro-tourism venture Blue Origin and its founder, Bezos, in what has been popularised 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 not engaged in a personal contest to beat one another into space.

Bezos posted a message on Instagram on Saturday wishing Branson and his team good luck and “a successful and safe flight,” but nonetheless there has been some public rancor between the two.

Blue Origin has disparaged Virgin Galactic as falling short of a true spaceflight experience, saying that unlike Unity, Bezos’s New Shepard tops the 100 km-high-mark, called the Karman line, set by an international aeronautics body as defining the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

“New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin said in a series of Twitter posts on Friday.

‘Evaluating private astronaut experience’

However, US space agency NASA and the US Air Force both define an astronaut as anyone who has flown higher than 80 km.

A third player in the space race, Musk’s SpaceX, plans to send its first all-civilian crew (without Musk) into orbit in September, after having already launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA.

Branson’s official role in Sunday’s test flight is to “evaluate the private astronaut experience,” according to Virgin’s press materials.

The spaceplane’s two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, will control the ignition and shutoff of the ship’s rocket engine, activation of the vehicle’s “feathered” tail maneuver for re-entry, and steer the craft back to its runway.

The three other mission specialists are Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Virgin Galactic’s lead operations engineer Colin Bennett; and Sirisha Bandla, a research operations, and government affairs vice president.

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