Branson’s first space flight reminds me of a pristine trip with him almost 40 years ago
Space travel came closer to reality Sunday morning July 11, when SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, took off from the world’s first commercial spaceport, south of Albuquerque, New Mexico: a runway takeoff for a trip supersonic round trip to the edge of space.
With a stated goal of uniting the world with commercial flights across space, Virgin Galactic was founded seventeen years ago by adventurer / philanthropist / billionaire Sir Richard Branson – who is now also the astronaut. 001.
It reminds me a little bit of when Branson founded Virgin Atlantic with a used aircraft. I was invited on Virgin Air’s virgin flight in 1984 from London Gatwick Airport to Newark with selected passengers including Branson and his family. On board, I met her mother, whose name, Eve, is on the mothership that brought the rocket into space.
The Unity spacecraft is roughly the size of a private jet and was carried by an aircraft from the mothership to about 45,000 feet. When released, its engine ignited and the crew felt a force of up to 3.5 times their normal weight en route to an altitude of over 50 miles, what NASA calls “entry into the air. ‘space”.
While they did not escape gravity, at the climax, Unity passengers unbuckled their seat belts and experienced approximately four minutes of apparent weightlessness.
And when coming back to a perfect landing, Unity largely acted like a winged glider.
In addition to pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci, the rocket plane crew included Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, Chief Operating Engineer; Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations, conducting a science experiment provided by the University of Florida; and Branson, responsible for evaluating the cabin experience for future customers.
It has been a painful journey to get to this point. The company’s first spaceplane, the VSS Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014 when co-pilot Michael Alsbury moved a lever too early in the flight and was killed when the Enterprise crashed is broken. Pilot Peter Siebold is parachuted to safety.
The controls have been redesigned so that the tail booms cannot be unlocked prematurely. But Virgin Galactic came close to another disaster in 2019, when a seal along one of the stabilizers broke.
Space companies like Virgin Galactic have been given a “learning period” to try out designs and procedures. The rocket plane has not been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and will not be until 2023. (It regulates enough that there is minimal risk to the âuninvolved public.â)
Virgin Galactic is the first platform to open up space for all of us, although there are competitors, such as Blue Origin, using a more automated vertical landing, owned and led by Amazon Founder and Former CEO Jeff Bezos . And there’s Elon Musk’s SpaceX as well.
So if you’ve been pretty much everywhere and are looking to brag among friends who have traveled a lot, you might soon have the opportunity to travel around 90 minutes – from launch to landing – for maybe be a quarter of a million dollars or so (!) for a few seconds in space, beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
Prices will (eventually) drop as space tourists, researchers, and even astronauts fly for commercial purposes, and one day many of us might stop by for a âSpacecationâ. Meanwhile, astronaut Sir Richard Branson said to check Amaze.com/space for a chance to win two seats on an upcoming flight.