Virgin Australia co-founder Sir Richard Branson has officially completed his mission to become the first of the billionaires currently investing in space tourism technologies to reach space aboard his own company’s rocket.
Sir Richard blasted off to the edge of space on his Virgin Galactic spaceplane on Sunday, in the company’s 22nd successful spaceflight, and fourth crewed flight to space.
On his inaugural spaceflight, Sir Richard joined a full crew of two pilots and three mission specialists aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo dubbed VSS Unity – a six-passenger, two-pilot craft that is designed to make brief jaunts to suborbital space.
Take-off was slightly delayed due to earlier weather concerns, with the flight successfully taking off from Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America in New Mexico shortly after 8:30am local time.
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) July 11, 2021
According to the space tourism company, VSS Unity achieved a top speed of Mach 3 after being released from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, named VMS Eve after Branson’s own mother, at roughly 43,000 feet just after 9:15am.
Unity fired up its engines in order to soar to the edge of space, roughly 282,480 feet (86 kilometres) above the Earth.
Here, the crew onboard experienced a few minutes of zero-gravity. At this point, Sir Richard said: “To all you kids out there — I was once a child with a dream, looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a spaceship … If we can do this, just imagine what you can do.”
The spaceplane soon began its shift into re-entry mode, and its gliding descent, before it successfully returned for a smooth landing at Spaceport America.
The entire flight, from take-off to landing, lasted about an hour.
Over 500 people were present to see Sir Richard fly to space for the first time, a feat he has spoken of for decades since first investing in Virgin Galactic, with many more tuning in via the livestream.
“The whole thing, it was just magical,” the 70-year-old exclaimed following the flight.
“We’re here to make space more accessible to all. Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) July 11, 2021
Notably, Sir Richard was vying against fellow billionaire spacetech entrepreneur Jeff Bezos for the title of the first billionaire to blast off to suborbital space aboard his own company’s rocket.
Not more than a day after Amazon founder Bezos announced that he would be taking a seat aboard his space venture Blue Origin’s first crewed flight into suborbital space on 20 July, rumours began to surface that Sir Richard would attempt to make his space debut first.
Then, earlier this month, Virgin Galactic confirmed that the British billionaire will be taking his seat aboard the next crewed spaceflight just nine days ahead of Bezos.
Both Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Bezos’ Blue Origin ventures are working hard to create a new trend of ‘space tourism’, in which their dedicated ‘spaceplanes’ perform brief jaunts into suborbital space, just above the Earth’s atmosphere, for minutes at a time.
Following Sir Richards’ flight, Bezos took to Instagram to share a congratulatory note.
“Congratulations on the flight,” he said. “Can’t wait to join the club!”
Meanwhile, Virgin Australia Group CEO Jayne Hrdlicka congratulated the Virgin Galactic Unity 22 mission team and the airline’s co-founder Sir Richard for their efforts.
“Congratulations to our founder Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic, and the Unity 22 Mission Specialists on successfully opening space travel for all mankind,” she said.
“Sir Richard’s success presents so much hope for all people around the world at a time where we need it most. Hope for humanity, hope for the future and hope to dream big.”
Virgin Galactic said it plans to conduct just one more test flight before it will begin flying paying customers, with market launch expected for early 2022.
According to Virgin Galactic, about 600 people have already bought their ticket to ride SpaceShipTwo when it is in full operation, each paying around $250,000 for the privilege.
Among the first of the everyday people to take to space aboard SpaceShipTwo will be Australian dad Scott Copeland, who won a seat onboard a future Virgin Galactic spaceflight in the 2014 Velocity Frequent Flying ‘Ultimate Upgrade to Space’ competition.
With Sir Richard’s inaugural spaceflight out of the way, 52-year-old father of three Copeland is one step closer to cashing in on his major prize, and has joined the pool of Virgin Galactic’s Future Astronaut Community.
The senior banker-come-astronaut said he has long dreamed of flying to space, and is excited to see this dream come to reality, just like Sir Richard’s
“I still pinch myself every day that my dream of entering space is close to reality,” said Copeland.
Since winning the competition, the self-confessed “space enthusiast” has travelled to the Mojave Desert in California to tour the Virgin Galactic facility with other future astronauts and see the spaceship VSS Unity.
“Velocity is the only frequent flyer program in Australia to award a member a ticket to space,” Hrdlicka said of Copeland’s big win.
“We’re so proud that working with Virgin Galactic we have been able to make Scott’s childhood dream a reality for simply joining Velocity and flying with Virgin Australia.”
You can watch the livestream of Sir Richard’s space flight here: