Reuters, TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, New Mexico
British billionaire Richard Branson yesterday climbed into his Virgin Galactic passenger rocket plane as he prepared to soar more than 80km above the New Mexico desert in the vehicle’s first fully crewed test flight to the edge of space.
Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees strapping in for the ride as of press time last night, 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.
Yesterday’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.
The takeoff from New Mexico’s state-owned Spaceport of America, near the New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences, was pushed back by more than two hours due to overnight thunderstorms that kept Virgin Galactic from rolling out its rocket plane on time, the company said.
The gleaming white spaceplane was borne aloft at about 11:30am attached to the underside of a specially designed twin-fuselage carrier jet, the VMS Eve, named after Branson’s late mother.
Separating from the mothership at an altitude of 50,000 feet (15.24km), Unity’s rocket engine was then to ignite to send the spaceplane streaking straight upward about 88.5km into the blackness of space, where the crew would experience about four minutes of microgravity.
With the engine shut down near the peak of its climb, the craft would then be shifted into re-entry mode before gliding back to a runway landing at the spaceport.
The entire flight, from takeoff to touchdown, was expected to take about 90 minutes.
Virgin has plans for two further test flights of the spaceplane in the months ahead before beginning commercial operations next year.
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 about US$250,000 per ticket.
Branson’s participation in yesterday’s flight, announced just over a week ago, is in keeping with his persona as the daredevil executive whose Virgin Group Ltd brands — from airlines to music companies — have long been associated with ocean-crossing exploits in sailboats and hot-air balloons.
His ride-along also upstages rival astro-tourism venture Blue Origin and its founder, Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos, in what has been popularized as the “billionaire space race.”
Bezos is planning to fly aboard his own suborbital rocketship, the New Shepard, later this month.
Bezos posted a message on Instagram on Saturday wishing Branson and his team good luck and “a successful and safe flight.”
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