Branson and Virgin Galactic complete successful space flight

Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson rocketed into space Sunday morning for a sub-orbital test flight to space intended to demonstrate his company’s air-launched spaceplane is ready for passengers who can afford the ultimate thrill ride.

And it appeared to do just that, zooming to an altitude just above 50 miles and giving Branson and his five crewmates about three minutes of weightlessness and spectacular views of Earth before plunging back into the atmosphere for a spiraling descent to touchdown at Virgin’s New Mexico launch site.

The flight effectively upstaged Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who plans a sub-orbital spaceflight of his own aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft on July 20, and gave Branson billionaire bragging rights as he and Bezos compete for passengers in the emerging commercial space marketplace.

Virgin Galactic plans two more test flights, and company officials hope to begin launching paying customers, at $250,000 or more per seat, in early 2022.

Branson’s 90-minute trip began in dramatic fashion as Virgin’s twin-fuselage carrier jet — with the VSS Unity rocket-powered spaceplane bolted under its wing — lifted away from the company’s Spaceport America launch site near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, at 8:40 a.m. local time (10:40 a.m. EDT).

Virgin Galactic Unity spaceplane takes off
The Virgin Galactic carrier plane, carrying the VSS Unity spaceplane Unity, took off at Spaceport America, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico, on July 11, 2021, with a crew of 6 including billionaire owner Richard Branson. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

The mothership, VMS Eve, slowly climbed to an altitude of about 45,000 feet and then, after a final round of safety checks, released Unity high above the New Mexico desert.

Seconds later, pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci, both veterans of earlier test flights to space, ignited Unity’s hybrid rocket motor, slamming the crew back in their seats as the spacecraft shot forward and pitched up into a near-vertical trajectory.

Burning rubberized solid propellant with liquid nitrous oxide, Unity’s hybrid motor fired for about one minute, accelerating the craft to more than three times the speed of sound before shutting down.

The spaceplane continued zooming upward along a ballistic trajectory, giving Branson and company a chance to briefly unstrap, float about the cabin and marvel at the spectacular view as Unity reached its maximum altitude of about 53 miles, just above the somewhat arbitrary “boundary” of space.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane fires its rocket on the way to the edge of space on July 11, 2021. Virgin Galactic

Along with Branson and the two pilots, the passengers include Virgin Galactic astronaut trainer Beth Moses, flight engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, the company’s vice president of government affairs and research operations.

Live video from inside the spaceplane briefly showed Branson and his crewmates floating about Unity’s cabin after their high-speed ascent.

A few minutes later, the spacecraft began the long plunge back to Earth.

Richard Branson, foreground, floats in the cabin of the VSS Unity spaceplane as the crew enjoyed about three minutes of weightlessness at the top of their trajectory. Virgin Galactic

Using an innovation pioneered by aircraft designer Burt Rutan, Unity’s wing and tail fins are designed to pivot upward 60 degrees once out of the atmosphere, giving the spaceplane the aerodynamics of a badminton shuttlecock, ensuring a belly-down re-entry.

Mackay and Masucci rotated the wing upward shortly after the rocket motor shut down and left it in the “feathered” orientation until it descended to around 55,000 feet when it was pivoted back parallel to the fuselage, turning Unity into a glider.

From there, the pilots guided the spaceplane through a spiraling descent, lined up on Spaceport America’s 12,000-foot-long runway and settled to a picture-perfect landing, closing out a flight that lasted 59 minutes from takeoff to touchdown.

NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Space Force agree that space effectively begins at an altitude of 50 miles where the atmosphere is so thin that wings, rudders and other aerodynamic surfaces no longer have any effect.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, seen aboard the VSS Unity as it returned to Earth on July 11, 2021. Virgin Galactic

As a result, Branson, Bennett and Bandla expected to earn FAA “astronaut wings,” a distinction granted to Mackay, Masucci and Moses after earlier test flights.

Sunday’s launching marked Unity’s 22nd test flight, its fourth trip to space, Virgin’s first with a six-person crew on board and the first for Branson, who beat Bezos into space by nine days.

The Amazon founder and owner of Blue Origin plans to blast off on an up-and-down sub-orbital flight aboard his own New Shepard spacecraft July 20, joined by his brother Mark, 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk and the yet-to-be-identified winner of an online auction.

Both companies plan to launch passengers on flights to the edge of space and back and both are in the final stages of test flights before beginning commercial operations. Branson effectively blindsided Bezos, scheduling Sunday’s flight just ahead of the Amazon founder’s, which had already been announced.

Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos race to space 04:45

While Bezos sent his best wishes to Branson via Instagram Saturday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk flew to New Mexico to be on hand.

“Big day ahead. Great to start the morning with a friend,” Branson tweeted. “Feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready.”

With Sunday’s flight, 583 individuals have now flown in space, 21 of them on sub-orbital flights and seven aboard VSS Unity.