British billionaire Richard Bransonhis last and arguably the greatest adventure aboard its Virgin Galactic space plane. The flight not only marks Branson’s first trip to space, but also the first time Virgin has flown in a fully crewed cabin.
Hundreds of guests and members of the media watched from the desert floor below toas the double trail drawn in the sky by the carrier aircraft VMS Eve was suddenly eclipsed by a third white plume emanating from SpaceShipTwo Unity’s rocket motor. The pair took off together around 8:40 a.m. MT (7:40 a.m. PT) and 45 minutes later Unity broke away from Eve and fired her engine for just under a minute to reach speeds above Mach 3.
Viewed from the surface, a diffuse but distinct white line could be seen rapidly painting almost perfectly vertically, pointing quite literally to the heavens.
Branson called it the “experience of a lifetime” in a staticky radio transmission from Unity as it began to glide back to Earth. The craft then returned for a picture-perfect landing near the same spot VMS Eve launched from almost exactly an hour earlier. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” the 70-year-old Branson said later from the tarmac of Spaceport America.
VMS Eve is named for Branson’s mother, Eve, who died due to COVID-19 complications in January.
“She held on for one last victory, managing to fight off the virus, but had expended all of her energy in the process,” Branson wrote in a blog post citing her as a major inspiration and force behind his career. “She took glider lessons disguised as a boy, enlisted in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) during World War II … she was inventive, fearless, relentless — an entrepreneur before the word existed.”
Unity made it to an estimated altitude of about 53 miles (86 kilometers) above the surface of the Earth. Some will quibble that this is lower than the commonly accepted definition of space, which begins at a nice, even 100 kilometers (62 miles). However, the US military and NASA set the dividing line at 50 miles up (80 kilometers), so it’s all clearly a little subjective. And for the purposes of space tourism, you get to experience weightlessness and look down on our home planet set against the black void of space from either altitude.
Before taking off, Branson said he would be “looking back at our beautiful Earth and taking it all in and realizing that only 500 other people [actually it’s 570, as of Saturday] did. ”
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.
Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic: see the space dream come to life
“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 has always been an adventurer and a thrill seeker. His many adventurous feats include long-distance ballooning and transatlantic sailing trips. He is the oldest person to kitesurf across the Channel.
Once back on dry land, Branson announced that Virgin would give two seats on an upcoming flight via a Omaze contest which also encourages donations to benefit the nonprofit Space for Humanity, which says its goal is to “democratize space and develop solutions to global problems through increased human consciousness.”
You can rewatch the Virgin Galactic flight livestream below.
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