Las Cruces, New Mexico, Jul 11 (EFE).- British billionaire businessman and philanthropist Richard Branson rode his Virgin Galactic space transport company’s spaceplane VSS Unity to the edge of space on Sunday, returning safely to Earth after an hour-long flight that launched about 8:40 am from Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert.
Upon his arrival back on terra firma, the 70-year-old Branson – the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways – was welcomed on the landing strip by three of his children and some 200 other people.
“My mission statement is to turn the dream of space travel into a reality – for my grandchildren, for your grandchildren, for everyone,” Branson had said on Twitter before the flight.
The London-born mogul did not pilot the mission, a task left to two of the five Virgin Galactic crewmembers who accompanied him aloft on board the Unity.
Pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci, both of whom have made earlier Virgin Galactic test flights into space, guided the spacecraft during its independent flight to the apex of its trajectory and then during its powered descent back to Earth.
The twin-fuselage spaceplane, which is about as large as a private jet, separated without incident from the VNS Eve carrier plane, thus named in honor of Branson’s mother, after reaching a height of about 45,000 feet (almost 14 kilometers), whereupon it then continued to the edge of space some 280,000 feet – that is, 53 miles (85 km) – above the Earth’s surface.
The mission was not aimed at sending the winged VSS Unity – with Branson aboard – into orbit, but was rather simply a soaring up-and-down flight up to 53 miles high, where weightless conditions prevailed for about four minutes, after which it descended again into the atmosphere like an airplane, ultimately landing as planned on the 12,000-foot runway at Spaceport America.
During the brief period of weightlessness, Branson and most of the crew undid their harnesses to float around within the cabin, enjoying the tremendous view out of the spaceplane’s small windows.
After the Unity separated from Eve, the flight up to the 53-mile mark and then back down to Earth took about 15 minutes.
In addition to scoring a significant publicity win for Virgin Galactic – thereby setting a new standard for space flight, in particularly “space tourism” – Branson also made it into space before Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos, who is scheduled to head into space on board a spacecraft developed by his own spaceflight company, Blue Origin, on July 20, which will be the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“It was just magical,” said an enthusiastic Branson – the second-oldest person ever to head into space – after he and the crew had touched down. “It’s 17 years of painstaking work, the occasional horrible down and large ups with it. And today was definitely the biggest up.”
Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) – one of the original seven former US astronauts – had flown into space on board the Space Shuttle in 1998 when he was 77 years old.
Although Bezos and Blue Origin are aiming to send paying tourists on ballistic (i.e. non-orbital) trajectories up beyond the somewhat arbitrary “Karman limit” 62 miles (100 km) high – which is recognized as the edge of space by international aviation and aerospace authorities – NASA, the US Air and Space Forces and the Federal Aviation Administration, along with some astrophysicists, put the threshold of space at 50 miles high.
Virgin Galactic has said that it has taken 600 reservations (at a quarter million dollars each) from eager, and wealthy, celebrities and other spaceflight amateurs – or tourists – although Blue Origin says it intends to announce its ticket pricing for similar flights after Bezos’s flight nine days from now.
Meanwhile, Tesla founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX spaceflight firm, which by contract with NASA has already launched astronauts to the International Space Station, is also attracting space tourists for bona fide orbital flights, although those tickets will cost upwards of a million dollars each.
SpaceX has scheduled its first “private” spaceflight for September, but Musk has not yet announced when – or whether – he himself will venture into space.
Spaceport America is located near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.