Richard Branson wins the billionaire space race

Richard Branson wins the billionaire space race: Virgin Galactic founder, 70, takes off on flight to the edge of earth’s atmosphere in VSS Unity plane – beating rivals Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk with record-breaking stunt

  • British billionaire Sir Richard Branson has become the second oldest man to travel to space at the age of 70 
  • Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic crew members onboard VSS Unity, beat rivals Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk
  • Spacecraft took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico 90 minutes later than expected due to weather 

Sir Richard Branson has become the first billionaire to make it into space after the Virgin Galactic founder took off on a flight to the edge of earth’s atmosphere in the VSS Unity plane today.

The British billionaire has beat rivals Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk with the historic and record-breaking stunt which played out as millions watched on a live stream from around the globe.

Branson was one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees who strapped in for the ride which the 70-year-old touted as a precursor to a new era of space tourism, with the company poised to begin commercial operations next year.  

The crew are flying to the edge of space – nine days before ‘rival’ Jeff Bezos – on a craft built by Branson’s own company after he declared it is ‘time to turn my dream into reality’. 

The 70-year-old, who was pictured cycling to the facility this morning where he was greeted by his crew mates, is the second oldest person to travel to space after 77-year-old John Glenn in 1998. 

The billionaire entrepreneur told the Times earlier today the view alone will be worth the billion pounds he has spent on the project and added: ‘I think it’s one of the reasons that people want to become astronauts. They want to look back at this beautiful Earth.

Pictured: The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity flies at Spaceport America, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico on July 11, 2021 before travel to the cosmos with Sir Richard Branson onboard with five other crew members

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity flies at Spaceport America before travel to the cosmos

Take off: Sir Richard Branson and five Virgin Galactic crew members are onboard the VSS Unity which has now taken off

Spectators cheers as the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity takes off at Spaceport America this afternoon

‘Every astronaut I’ve known has come back determined that the rest of their lives will be spent working harder to protect the planet that we live on.’

Branson is travelling on VSS Unity, which launched from mothership VMS Eve at XXXXX with a live stream of the event starting at 3.30pm (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The launch was delayed by 90 minutes due to bad weather in the area which arrived overnight which delayed the start of flight preparations.

Once it reaches 50,000 feet the carrier plane releases Unity, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. 

Once released Unity’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic.

The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth’s surface.

Sir Richard Branson (left) is set to become the first billionaire to leave earth in a rocket today as he will join the crew of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 2pm

Sir Richard Branson has revealed the uniforms were deliberately designed to reflect his love of the Star Trek series. He is pictured with fellow crew members Dave Mackay, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, Sirisha Bandla and pilot Michael Masucci

Always a fan of making an entrance, Sir Richard Branson was filmed arriving at the facility on his bike earlier today (pictured)

British billionaire Richard Branson waves as he arrives at a base in Las Cruces, New Mexico, ahead of the launch today

Richard Branson(L) receives some cards from children as he walks out from Spaceport America ahead of the launch today

He has been joined by chief pilot David Mackay, a Scottish-born test pilot for the Royal Air Force who went on to fly for Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, and chief flight instructor Michael Masucci.

Also onboard is chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, a former NASA engineer, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, a company vice president. The six will grab a lift from mothership pilots C.J. Sturckow, a former NASA astronaut, and Kelly Latimer. 

A discount travel service it is not. But demand is apparently strong, with several hundred wealthy would-be citizen astronauts already having booked reservations, priced at around £180,000 per ticket (around $250,000).

The Swiss-based investment bank UBS has estimated the potential value of the space tourism market reaching $3 billion annually by 2030.

Proving rocket travel safe for the public is key, given the inherent dangers of spaceflight.

An earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.

Sir Richard’s extraordinary trip is one week before his 71st birthday, and he was joined by five others on what has been dubbed the Unit 22 test flight – as it is the 22nd test flight for the spaceplane. 

The British billionaire launched on the first of the three test flights carrying a full complement of ‘astronauts’ in the cabin, before they begin flying the first of 600 ‘future astronaut’ ticket holders in 2022. 

Branson is Astronaut 001 is travelling with Chief Astronaut Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003) and VP of Government Affairs Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004) in the cabin.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, right, is greeted by school children before heading to the edge of space

Pilots walk out from Spaceport America before travel to the cosmos with British billionaire Richard Branson on board

Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research operations, arrives at the facility today

Pictured: Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic crew members enter the company’s passenger rocket plane, the VSS Unity, in a previous inspection taken at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, which was issued earlier this year

Virgin Galactic’s passenger rocket plane, the VSS Unity, is seen in its hangar at Spaceport America in the state of New Mexico

Pictured: Inside the Virgin Galactic spacecraft with the seats rotated back while in space during a previous test flight

THE UNITY 22 CREW 

Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic

Moses will serve as cabin lead and test director in space, overseeing the safe and efficient execution of the test flight objectives 

Colin Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer at Virgin Galactic 

Bennett will evaluate cabin equipment, procedures, and experience during both the boost phase and in the weightless environment 

Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic 

Bandla will be evaluating the human-tended research experience, using an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes that will be activated at various points in the flight profile. 

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic 

Branson will evaluate the private astronaut experience and will undergo the same training, preparation and flight as Virgin Galactic’s future astronauts. 

Virgin Galactic will use his observations from his flight training and spaceflight experience to enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers. 

The pilots 

The pilots for this mission are Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci flying VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer flying VMS Eve. 

The London-born founder of the Virgin Group wasn’t supposed to fly until later this summer. But he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos announced plans to ride his own rocket into space from West Texas on July 20.

Virgin Galactic doesn’t expect to start flying customers before next year. Blue Origin has yet to open ticket sales or even announce prices, but late last week boasted via Twitter that it would take clients higher and offer bigger windows.

Unlike Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which launch capsules atop reusable booster rockets, Virgin Galactic uses a twin-fuselage aircraft to get its rocket ship aloft.

The space plane is released from the mothership about 44,000 feet (13,400 meters) up, then fires its rocket motor to streak straight to space. Maximum altitude is roughly 55 miles (70 kilometers), with three to four minutes of weightlessness provided.

The rocket plane – which requires two pilots – glides to a runway landing at its Spaceport America base.

Virgin Galactic reached space for the first time in 2018, repeating the feat in 2019 and again this past May, each time with a minimal crew. It received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration last month to start launching customers.

Meanwhile, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos will launch to the edge of space on the New Shepherd rocket on July 20 – the 52nd anniversary of the first moon landing. 

Branson denied that he and Bezos were in a ‘battle of the billionaire space founders’ to see who would go up first, despite changing from the second to the first VSS Unity test flight in order to go up before Bezos.

The 70-year-old said he was going into space to ‘test the customer experience’ from start to finish, to ensure that those paying to go up get the best possible experience. 

It is the fourth crewed flight of VSS Unity and only the second to include passengers in the cabin. The first saw Beth Moses go up in February 2019.

The news that Branson would go up on this flight came soon after the FCC granted Virgin Galactic a change to their operator license that allowed them to take paying travellers up to the edge of space.

The Operations Center of Spaceport America pictured as Branson travels to the edge of space in passenger rocket plane

‘After a successful flight in late May and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for a Full Commercial Launch License, the pathway towards commercial launch is clear,’ Branson said prior to the launch. 

‘Virgin Galactic still has tests to come, and this is the time for me to assess the astronaut experience. 

‘When we return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people the chance to become an astronaut. Because space belongs to us all. So watch this space,’ said Branson in a blog post before the launch.’ 

This latest launch is the first of three final flights required to test all aspects of the cabin and passenger experience, with Branson saying he got ‘truly excited’ when the final safety checks came through and he was asked if he wanted to go into space.

‘I’ve been looking forward to this for 17 years,’ Branson said from Spaceport America near the remote town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

He said pre-flight preparations only added to the excitement ahead of Sunday’s scheduled launch, which will be taking place one week before his 71st birthday. ‘Every bit about it is a pinch-me moment,’ he added. 

For the first flight that included someone in the cabin, Chief Astronaut Beth Moses went up into space alone, only accompanied by the two pilots in the cockpit. 

‘We are at the vanguard of a new industry determined to pioneer twenty-first century spacecraft, which will open space to everybody — and change the world for good,’ Branson declared. 

In a blog post on the run up to the flight, Branson wrote: ‘It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality. 

‘As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honoured to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.’

Virgin Galactic said the aim of the latest flight is to evaluate the commercial customer cabin, to test the environment, seat comfort, weightless experience and view of the Earth from space.

This is ‘all to ensure every moment of the astronaut’s journey maximises the wonder and awe created by space travel,’ the firm wrote.

They are also demonstrating the conditions for conducting human-tended research experiments, a new area of business opened up for the space firm.

They have already sent a payload up for NASA and next year will send Kellie Gerardi, a researcher for the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), up on VSS Unity to monitor experiments. 

The crew will also work to confirm the training program at Spaceport America supports the spaceflight experience, before customers go up. 

HOW DOES RICHARD BRANSON’S VIRGIN GALACTIC CONDUCT ITS SPACE FLIGHTS?

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch.

Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).

The first WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve – which Virgin Galactic has used on all of its test flights – was rolled-out in 2008 and has a high-altitude, heavy payload capacity.

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.

Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to build more in future.

Once released from WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic.

The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth’s surface.

WhiteKnightTwo (artist’s impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

This altitude is defined as beyond the edge of outer space by Nasa.

After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will shut it down, and passengers can then take off their seatbelts to experience weightlessness for several minutes.

The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to give the best possible views of Earth and space while raising the vehicle’s wings to its ‘feathered’ re-entry configuration, which decelerates the craft and stabilises its descent.

As gravity pulls the spaceship back towards the Earth’s upper atmosphere, astronauts will return to their seats ready to return to our planet.

At around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres), after re-entry, the pilot will return the spaceship’s wings to their normal configuration, ready to glide back to Earth for a smooth runway landing. 

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to produce more in future

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