British billionaire and founder of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson flew 80 KMs above the arid deserts of New Mexico aboard his Virgin Galactic spaceship and safely returned to Earth during the vehicle’s first fully-crewed test flight to the edge of space. Branson began planning the trip on the craft 17 years ago.
The flight, attended by Branson and five other Virgin Galactic employees, has been touted by the billionaire as a watershed moment for space tourism with the company expected to begin commercial operations next year.
Launching, flying and safely landing the VSS Unity passenger spaceship marked the company’s 22nd test flight of its SpaceShipTwo system, and Virgin Galactic’s 4th crewed mission beyond the planet’s atmosphere.
This latest mission was the first to see the ship carry a full complement of space travellers – two pilots and four passengers, or “mission specialists.”
VSS Unity’s Flight
VSS Unity, Branson’s shining spacecraft began the journey being carried by the “mothership” jet, VMS Eve – named after Branson’s late mother.
VMS Eve carried the Unity spaceship to its high-altitude launch point at about 46,000 feet.
At this point, Unity was released from the mothership and began falling away as the crew ignited its rocket propulsion system, sending it streaking upwards at supersonic speed to the void of space nearly 86 KMs above Earth.
The ship was then shut down at the apex of its ascent. Here the crew experienced a few minutes of microgravity before it began a gliding descent towards the runway back at Spaceport America. The entire flight, from takeoff to landing, lasted about an hour.
Steep Ticket Prices
According to News24, Virgin has said that it is planning at least 2 further test flights of the spaceship in the months ahead before starting regular commercial flights in 2022.
The tickets for the flights will retail at around $250,000 per seat. Demand from would-be space tourists is apparently high, with several hundred wealthy citizen-astronaut hopefuls already reserving flights to the edge of space.
The Swiss-based investment bank UBS has estimated the potential value of the space tourism market to reach $3 billion annually by 2030.
Billionaire “Space Race”
Branson’s successful Unity spaceflight is set to be followed by a flight manned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin space tourism venture.
Bezos is set to fly to the edge of space in his own suborbital rocket, the New Shepard, later this month.
Branson has insisted that the two billionaires are friendly rivals and are not engaged in a personal contest to beat the other into space.
A third player in the space race, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is planning to send its first all-civilian crew into orbit in September this year. The company has already launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA in a series of highly publicised space flights.