Photo: Gulltaggen

Virgin Records’ Founder Richard Branson Completes Virgin Galactic Space Travel

It’s official! Virgin Galactic owner and Virgin Records founder Richard Branson rocketed into space Sunday (7.11) on an edge-of-the-seat sub-orbital test flight intended to demonstrate his company’s air-launched spaceplane.

Branson’s voyage began in dramatic fashion as Virgin’s twin-fuselage carrier jet — with the VSS Unity rocket-powered spaceplane bolted under its wing — lifted up from the company’s Spaceport America launch site near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, at 8:40 a.m. local time.

Joining the globe-trotting billionaire entrepreneur were pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci, along with Virgin astronaut trainer Beth Moses, flight engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, the company’s vice president of government relations.

With a throng of reporters and a global audience following along on YouTube and across Virgin’s social media channels, the Virgin mothership VMS Eve slowly climbed to an altitude of about 45,000 feet and then, after a final round of safety checks, released Unity high above the New Mexico desert. Seconds later, Mackay and Masucci ignited Unity’s hybrid rocket motor, slamming the crew back in their seats as the spacecraft shot forward and pitched up onto a near-vertical trajectory.

Burning rubberized solid propellant with liquid nitrous oxide, Unity’s hybrid motor fired for about one minute, accelerating the craft to about three times the speed of sound before shutting down. The spaceplane continued zooming upward along a ballistic trajectory, giving Branson and company a chance to briefly unstrap, float about the cabin and marvel at the spectacular view as Unity reached its maximum altitude of 53.5 miles — three-and-a-half miles above what NASA and the FAA consider the “boundary” of space.

Live video from inside the spacecraft showed Branson and his crewmates floating free of their seats and enjoying the sensation of weightlessness, not to mention the out-of-this-world view.

“To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars,” Branson said while his cremates cavorted in microgravity. “Now I’m an adult, in a spaceship with lots of other wonderful adults, looking down to our beautiful, beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers: If we can do this, just imagine what you can do!” he said, before floating out of his seat.

A few moments later, the spacecraft then began the long plunge back to Earth.

“I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid but honestly, nothing could prepare you for the view of Earth from space,” Branson, 70, said after landing, at a rare loss for words. “It was just magical. … I’m just taking it all in, it’s unreal.”

Sunday’s launching marked Unity’s 22nd test flight, its fourth trip to space, Virgin’s first with a six-person crew on board and the first for Branson, who beat Amazon-founder, Jeff Bezos, into space by nine days.

Virgin Galactic and Bezos’ Blue Origin both plan to launch passengers on flights to the edge of space and back and both are in the final stages of test flights before beginning commercial operations.

“I’ve said this so many times, it really wasn’t a race,” Branson said. “We’re just delighted that everything went so fantastically well. We wish Jeff the absolute best and the people who are going up with him during his flight.”

Virgin plans two more test flights, but company officials hope to begin launching paying customers, at $250,000 or more per seat, in early 2022. Flush with success Sunday, Branson announced a charity sweepstakes benefitting Space for Humanity, saying two winners will be selected to join one of the initial commercial flights.

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Author: Brad LeBeau

Photo: Gulltaggen