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07/12/2021

Billionaire Branson blasts into space

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
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Photo via virgingalactic.com

Colorful Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson has reached space before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Virgin Galactic, the commercial space travel subsidiary of global conglomerate Virgin Group, successfully reached space in its fourth rocket-powered spaceflight – the first with a full crew in the cabin – on Sunday, July 11, 2021. The “Unity 22” mission was the 22nd flight test for Virgin Galactic. The crew included Branson, who tested the private astronaut experience, as well as two pilots and three other mission specialists.

Branson’s fellow billionaire entrepreneur Bezos recently announced plans to travel to space on the first manned flight launched by Blue Origin, the spaceflight services company he founded, on July 20. Virgin Galactic has publicly stated the timing of the flight was not pushed back from its original August 2021 target so that Branson could beat Bezos, but the end result gave Branson initial bragging rights. 

VSS Unity achieved a speed of Mach 3 after being released from the mothership, VMS Eve. The vehicle reached space, at an altitude of 53.5 miles, before gliding smoothly to a runway landing at the Spaceport America spaceflight center in New Mexico. 

According to Virgin Galactic, the Unity 22 crew fulfilled a number of test objectives related to the cabin and customer experience, including evaluating the commercial customer cabin, the views of Earth from space, the conditions for conducting research, and the effectiveness of the five-day pre-flight training program at Spaceport America.

In a July 9 tweet, Blue Origin said its New Shepard space craft “was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line.”

The VSS Unity did not reach the Kármán line, which equals roughly 62 miles, topping out at about 53.5 miles above the Earth. However, Branson, Virgin Galactic, and most media outlets are all assigning credit to the Unity 22 flight for crossing into space.

 “I have dreamt about this moment since I was a child, but nothing could have prepared me for the view of Earth from space,” said Branson in a corporate press release. “We are at the vanguard of a new space age. As Virgin’s founder, I was honored to test the incredible customer experience as part of this remarkable crew of mission specialists and now astronauts. I can’t wait to share this experience with aspiring astronauts around the world.”

“Today is a landmark achievement for the company and a historic moment for the new commercial space industry,” said Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic. With each successful mission, we are paving the way for the next generation of astronauts.”