Branson Beats Jeff Bezos to Space, Targets Open Space Tourism


SPACEPORT AMERICA, NM – Soaring more than 50 miles into the warm, dazzlingly bright sky above New Mexico, Richard Branson has finally fulfilled a dream that took decades to fulfill: He can now call himself an astronaut.

On Sunday morning, a small rocket plane operated by Virgin Galactic, which Mr. Branson founded in 2004, carried him and five others to the edge of space and back.

More than an hour later, Mr. Branson took the stage to celebrate. “Everything was magical,” he said.

Later, at a press conference, Mr. Branson was still dizzy and said, “I don’t know what’s coming out of my mouth because I still feel like I’m in space.”

Mr. Branson’s flight strengthens space enthusiasts’ hope that routine travel to the final frontier may soon be possible not only for professional astronauts from NASA and other space agencies, but also for private citizens. He has plans to build another billionaire – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – who has his own rocket company. a trip to the edge of space within nine days.

In any case, billionaire entrepreneurs risk injury or death to fulfill their childhood aspirations – and further the goal of making manned spaceflight extraordinary.

“They put their money where their mouths are, and they put their bodies where their money is,” said Eric Anderson, president of Space Adventures Limited, a company that has launched into orbit. “Obviously that’s impressive.”

At 8:40 a.m., a carrier plane with the VSS Unity rocket plane, stuck under it, rose off the runway and headed to an altitude of about 45,000 feet. There, Unity was released, and moments later the rocket engine ignited, accelerating the space plane in an upward arc.

While Unity has traveled to space three times before, this was Virgin Galactic’s first launch to resemble a full commercial flight of the kind that it has promised to bring to the public with two pilots (David Mackay and Michael Masucci) and four crew members. Including Mr. Branson.

This flight looked like a party for Virgin Galactic and its nascent space tourism business. Among the guests are SpaceX founder Elon Musk; New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham; and nearly 60 customers paying for future Virgin Galactic flights.

Stephen Colbert of the CBS program “The Late Show” introduced parts of the webcast. After landing, R&B singer Khalid sang a new song.

When the fuel ran out, Unity continued to ascend to an altitude of 53.5 miles. The four people in the back unbuckled and hovered for about four minutes before returning to their seats.

Mr. Branson was accompanied in the cabin by Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, chief operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.

Mr. Bennett said he was busy during the first part of the flight, and then he heard Moses shout, “Don’t forget to look out the window.”

He did. “Very Zen,” Mr. Bennett said of the view of the Earth below. “What struck me was the colors and how far away it looked. It felt like we were so high up and I was just mesmerized.”

Ms. Bandla’s role was to assess another market Virgin Galactic was targeting: scientists doing research that leverages microgravity for minutes. As part of research from the University of Florida that could help grow food on future long-duration space missions, he conducted an experiment examining how plants respond to changing conditions—especially oscillations in gravity—during flight.

As the spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere, the downward pull of gravity resumed. Unity glided into the spaceport.

Virgin Galactic president Michael Moses said the flight looked flawless. “The ship looks immaculate, there are no problems,” said Mr.

The irreverent 70-year-old British billionaire, Mr. Branson, who has led a galaxy of Virgin companies for more than a decade, has repeatedly said he believes commercial flights will begin soon. So did Virgin Galactic’s 600 or so customers who paid $200,000 or more for space tickets and are still waiting. So did New Mexico taxpayers, who paid $220 million to build Spaceport America, a futuristic vision in the middle of the desert, to attract Mr. Branson’s company.

After years and years of unfulfilled promises, Virgin Galactic may begin flying first-paying passengers next year after two test flights. But with tickets costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, that experience will be out of financial reach for most people for now.

Starting a space exploration company was perhaps an unsurprising step for Mr. Branson, who had made a career and a fortune. estimated at $6 billion – establishing flamboyant new businesses that he promotes with an entertainer’s flair.

What became his Virgin business empire began in the 1970s with a small record store in central London, before Mr Branson transferred it to Virgin Records, the home of the Sex Pistols, Peter Gabriel and more. He was one of the founders of Virgin Atlantic in 1984.

Virgin Group has branched out into a mobile phone service, a passenger railroad and a number of hotels. Not all of them performed flawlessly. While two of the airlines filed for bankruptcy during the pandemic last year, few today remember his attempts. soft drinks, makeup supplies or underwear.

The spaceflight company shared in Mr. Branson’s passion for high-flying, such as skydiving and hot air ballooning.

Virgin Galactic joined the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 after merging with a publicly traded investment fund, giving it a powerful new source of funding to compete with deep-pocketed competitors – and Mr. Branson is one of the company’s flight teams.

Virgin Group owns a 24 percent stake in Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane is an enlarged version of SpaceShipOne, which received the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 as the first reusable crewed spacecraft built by a nonprofit to go into space twice in two weeks.

Mr. Branson had initially predicted that commercial flights would begin by 2007. But the development of the larger spaceship SpaceShipTwo took long.

The first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise, Crashed during a test flight in 2014 and one of the pilots died. Virgin Galactic was later grounded until Unity was completed a year and a half later.

In 2019, Virgin Galactic was on the verge of another disaster when a gasket on the rear horizontal stabilizer broke due to incorrect installation of a new thermal protection film.

This year’s mishap revealed in the book “Gods of the Test: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut” By Nicholas Schmidle, writer of The New Yorker. The book quotes Todd Ericson, then vice president of safety and testing at Virgin Galactic: “I don’t know how we didn’t lose our car and kill three people.”

Mr. Bezos’ flight will take place about 200 miles southeast of Spaceport America in Van Horn, Texas, where rocket company Blue Origin launches its New Shepard rocket and capsule.

Although Blue Origin has yet to fly any humans at New Shepard, 15 successful uncrewed tests of the fully automated system convinced the company that it would be safe to put Mr. Bezos on the first flight with people on board.

His brother Mark will join him and Mary WallaceFunkAn 82 year old pilot. In the 1960s, she was among a group of women who passed the same stringent criteria NASA used to select astronauts, but at the time the space agency was not interested in selecting women as astronauts. Fourth unnamed passenger paid $28 million at an auction for one of the seats.

Neither Blue Origin nor Virgin Galactic flights go high enough or fast enough to enter Earth orbit. Rather, these suborbital flights are like giant roller coaster rides that allow passengers to float for a few minutes while admiring the view of Earth against the black backdrop of space.

Mr. Bezos’ company highlighted competition with Virgin Galactic for space tourism travelers. a tweet on friday. Blue Origin highlighted the differences between the New Shepard rocket and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo; Including the fact that New Shepard flies at an altitude of 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, which is often considered the limit of space. However, the United States Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration set the limit at 50 miles.

The company also noted the size of the New Shepard capsule’s windows, describing Virgin Galactic’s Unity as a “high-altitude drone” unlike New Shepard’s rocket.

Mr. Bezos congratulated Mr. Branson and his crew on their flight on Sunday. “Can’t wait to join the club!” said Instagram post.

“It wasn’t really a race,” Mr Branson said at the press conference. “We wish Jeff the absolute best,” he added.

Blue Origin has yet to reveal a ticket price, and Virgin Galactic’s previous $250,000 price will likely increase. But after his tour on Sunday, Mr. Branson announced: a raffle that will give two seats on a future Virgin Galactic flight.

Virgin Galactic is planning two more test flights, including one where scientists from the Italian Air Force will conduct scientific experiments before entering commercial service.

The era of non-professional astronauts regularly going into orbit could also begin next year. Jared IsaacmanThe 38-year-old billionaire essentially rents a rocket and spacecraft. Space X For a three-day trip to orbit, scheduled for September.

In December, Space Adventures arranged for a Japanese fashion entrepreneur. Yusaku Maezawaand production assistant Yozo Hirano will be launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station.

Another company, Axiom Space in Houston, is organizing a separate trip to the space station starting in January.

With Axiom’s three customers paying $55 million each, orbital journeys are too expensive for anyone but the super-wealthy, and suborbital flights may only be affordable for the well-off.

But how many people are willing to spend as much as some houses cost for a few minutes of space travel?

Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, an aerospace consulting firm, thinks there will be plenty. “Based on previous ticket sales, surveys and interviews,” he said in an email, “we see strong signals of demand for hundreds of passengers per year at current prices, and the potential for thousands if prices drop significantly.”

Mr. Anderson is less sure of Space Adventures.

Twenty years ago, his company sold suborbital flights, including a ticket, to Mrs. Funk, who passed by Wally. “Wally Funk was one of our first customers,” said Mr. Anderson. “It would be like 1998.”

The ticket price was $98,000 at the time.

At one point, nearly 200 people signed up, but none of the suborbital rocket companies were able to get the promised spacecraft closer to flight. Space Adventures returned the money to Miss Funk and the others.

Now this unproven suborbital market has turned into a war of billionaires – Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos.

“If anyone can make money and run the market for suborbital, it’s Branson and Bezos,” said Mr. Anderson. “They have the reach and prestige.”

Michael J. de la Merced and Neil Vigdor contributed to the reporting.


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