Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and a crew of Virgin Galactic employees are airborne ahead of their rocket-powered ascent to space. A SpaceShipTwo spaceplane took off from New Mexico at 10:40AM ET Sunday, carried aloft by a WhiteKnight carrier plane. The mission, dubbed Unity 22, is the fourth test flight to space for the spaceplane and the first for Branson, the 70-year-old daredevil entrepreneur who’s been waiting over a decade for his debut trek out of Earth’s atmosphere.
About 50 minutes after takeoff, the SpaceShipTwo plane, dubbed VSS Unity, will drop from the center of Virgin Galactic’s twin-fuselage WhiteKnight plane at an altitude of around 45,000 feet. Moments later VSS Unity will ignite its single rocket engine to blast to the edge of space, some 55 miles above the ground. The crew will bask in a few minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to land in New Mexico at Spaceport America, the central hub for Virgin Galactic’s nascent space tourism business.
“Feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready,” Branson tweeted hours before his flight. He said he started the morning off with a visit from Elon Musk, who’s in New Mexico to watch the mission in person. Onboard SpaceShipTwo with Branson are two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, and three other crew members in the cabin: Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses, Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett, and Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations Sirisha Bandla. The crew will test out Virgin Galactic’s cabin experience.
A video Branson tweeted Sunday morning showed the billionaire riding a bike on a road toward Virgin Galactic’s spaceport just before sunrise, flanked by two white SUVs. He met up with Moses, Bennett, and Bandla, with Moses saying: “You’re late! Cmon, get suited up, let’s go!” For attendees, the company’s spaceport in New Mexico looked like a music festival on the other side of the spaceport — dozens of guests watched the mission kick off on a giant screen at the center of a stage set up just outside the building, Spaceport America. Stephen Colbert is hosting the mission’s livestream, and singer-songwriter Khalid will perform a new single on that stage after Branson’s flight.
Space tourism ready for takeoff
Virgin Galactic previously planned to fly Branson as a passenger on a later test flight, but earlier this month the company announced he’d be bumped up to fly on Unity 22 as a crew member instead. That set Branson up to make it to space ahead of his rival Jeff Bezos, another billionaire who plans to fly his space company’s New Shepard rocket to the edge of space on July 20th. It’s a PR-heavy display of competition, but for Branson, who turns 71 on July 18th, it’s executing a decades-long dream to go to space. And for Virgin Galactic, flying its billionaire founder is seen as a show of confidence that SpaceShipTwo is safe for anyone to fly. In 2014, the company suffered a mid-flight disaster during a test flight that killed one pilot and severely injured another. After that flight, Branson vowed to travel on a future flight before the company started flying customers.
The Unity 22 mission marks a key step forward for the company’s development of SpaceShipTwo as it tries to lead a burgeoning space tourism market catered to wealthy adventure-seekers. Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004 and has already sold roughly 600 tickets priced around $250,000 a pop, but it hasn’t flown any of those passengers yet. The company has two more test missions planned this year before kicking off its commercial space tourism business in 2022. But like any launch, that plan hinges on the outcome of Sunday’s test flight. Vehicle inspections and weeks of post-mission data reviews will inform how it plans to move forward, the company has said.
Also vying for a slice of the space tourism market is Bezos’ Blue Origin — which hasn’t announced its ticket price point yet — and Musk’s SpaceX. Like Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, Blue Origin’s crew vehicle is suborbital, though it’s a gumdrop-shaped capsule that launches vertically atop a 5-story-tall rocket and ascends to an altitude of 62 miles. Blue Origin’s July 20th flight with Bezos, the company’s first to fly humans, will include Bezos’ brother Mark, aviation legend Wally Funk, and the undisclosed winner of a $28 million auction for a fourth seat. SpaceX’s space tourism plans are even more involved; its Crew Dragon capsule will launch to orbit for a few days for a price of roughly $55 million per seat.
The competitive space industry vibes flared in the weeks leading up to Unity 22. Blue Origin threw shade at Virgin Galactic in a snarky tweet two days before Branson’s flight, alleging Branson isn’t really reaching space because SpaceShipTwo flies a few miles below the boundary of space recognized by an international sports organization. Jeff Bezos had more positive vibes on Saturday, wishing Branson good luck in an Instagram post. Musk has been cordial throughout, keeping a distance from the PR war and meeting up with Branson in New Mexico. “Thanks for being so typically supportive and such a good friend, Elon,” Branson tweeted to Musk on the eve of his flight.