Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson finally hits space and returns safe and sound


Richard Branson arrives at Spaceport America in New Mexico on Sunday before heading to Space Edge aboard a Virgin Galactic spacecraft.

Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

British billionaire Richard Branson successfully completed his last and arguably the greatest adventure with Sunday’s brief flight to the edge of space aboard its Virgin Galactic space plane.

Hundreds of guests and media watched from the desert floor below New Mexico’s Spaceport America as the double trail drawn across the sky by the VMS Eve carrier plane was suddenly eclipsed by a third white plume. emanating from the SpaceShipTwo Unity rocket engine. About 45 minutes after takeoff, Unity broke away from Eve, its engine ignited and fired for just under a minute, reaching speeds above Mach 3.

Seen from the surface, a diffuse but distinct white line could be seen quickly painting almost perfectly vertically, literally pointing skyward.


The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Unity spacecraft and mothership part ways as they fly high above Spaceport America near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico on Sunday.

Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Imaes

Branson called it the “experience of a lifetime” in a static radio transmission from Unity as it began to hover towards Earth. The craft then returned for a perfect landing near the same spot VMS Eve launched almost exactly an hour earlier. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” Branson tweeted.

VMS Eve is named after Branson’s mother Eve, who died of complications from COVID-19 in January.

“She held one last victory, successfully fighting off the virus, but had spent all of her energy in the process,” Branson wrote in a blog post citing her as a major inspiration and force behind her career. “She took glider lessons in a boy’s disguise, enlisted in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) during WWII… she was inventive, fearless, relentless – an entrepreneur before the word existed . “

Unity reached an altitude of about 56 miles (90 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface. Some will quibble that this is below the commonly accepted definition of space, which starts at a pretty, even 100 kilometers (62 miles). However, the US military and NASA have set the dividing line at 50 miles (80 kilometers), so everything is clearly a bit subjective. And for the purposes of space tourism, you can experience weightlessness and contemplate our home planet in the black void of space, at any altitude.

Before taking off, Branson said he would “come back to our beautiful Earth, take everything into account and realize that only 500 other people (in fact, it’s 570 on Saturday) have made it.”

Virgin chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses was also on the flight, the only person to ever board SpaceShipTwo’s passenger cabin, in 2019. The company’s senior operations engineer, Colin Bennett, was on the flight. on board with Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs. Bandla led a University of Florida research experiment involving the adaptation of plant biology to microgravity.

“VG flights provide, for the first time, the ability to actively monitor experiments during launch and initial entry into space. This ability to study the biology that undergoes launch and then microgravity is, perhaps, of surprisingly, a radical new development “, Rob Ferl, principal investigator of the experiment and professor of horticultural sciences, said in a press release. “Previously, all experiments had to wait until the spacecraft was in orbit before the experiment could be monitored.”

The two Virgin Galactic pilots at the helm of Unity were Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, with former NASA astronaut CJ Sturckow and former NASA research pilot Kelly Latimer piloting the VMS Eve.

Branson promised “to announce something very exciting to give more people a chance to become astronauts.”

You can follow the livestream here and on Twitter and Instagram.

Branson’s many feats of adventure include long-distance balloon rides and transatlantic sailing trips.

To pursue CNET’s 2021 Space Calendar to stay up to date with all the latest space news this year. You can even add it to your own Google Calendar.


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