Richard Branson and Friends Reach the Edge of Space, and Lived to Tell About it!

Early this morning, Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic achieved a major milestone in the development of commercial space travel. Along with a team of specialists, Branson traveled to the edge of space aboard the VSS Unity and made it safely back to Earth. In so doing, Branson and his company have also fired the latest salvo in the ongoing race between the titans of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace).

Coverage began at 7:30 am PST (10:30 am EST) and was live-streamed on the company website, its Youtube channel, and social media accounts. As promised, the event was hosted by comedian Stephen Colbert and co-hosted by a panel that consisted of famed former astronaut and science communicator Chris Hadfield, industry professional and popular science communicator Kelly Jerardi, and Virgin Galactic structures engineer Veronika McGowan.

Kicking things off in style, Branson rode his bicycle to Spaceport America and joined the rest of the crew, who then entered the facility and signed the “astronaut log book.” This included aerospace engineer Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor; Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003), the company’s lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004), Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research.

At 08:21 AM PDT (11:21 AM EDT), the mission took off with its carrier – the VMS Eve (named after Branson’s late mother) – and was flown to its launch altitude of over 13,715 m (45,000 ft). At 09:15 AM PDT (12:15 PM EDT), the VSS Unity detached from VMS Eve and engaged its rocket motor for a full burn of 60 seconds. At this point, Branson and his fellow crew members were given the green light to undo their safety harnesses and float around the cabin.

The spacecraft achieved a top velocity of Mach 3 (3,700 km/h; 2,300 mph) and reach an altitude of 86 km (53.5 mi) – just slightly below the Kármán Line (the official boundary of space). The entire flight was captured by flight cameras mounted on the mothership, the spacecraft, and the chase plane. Branson and crew also live-tweeted the event and shared photos of their ascent and the four minutes of weightlessness they experienced.

“Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” Branson tweeted. “I have dreamt about this moment since I was a child, but going to space was more magical than I ever imagined.” Shortly after, the VSS Unity “feathered” its wings and began gliding safely back to Earth, touching down on the runway at Spaceport America at about 09:30 AM PDT (12:30 PM EDT). As promised, Branson had a “very exciting” announcement to share during the post-flight press event:

“Today Virgin Galactic is proud to announce that it has partnered with Omaze, to open space for everyone. If you go to Omaze.com/space to enter, you have a chance to go to space… You’ll be entered into the Omaze sweepstakes for the chance to win not one, but two seats aboard one of the first commercial Virgin Galactic spaceflights. And with my Willy Wonka hat on, a guided tour of Spaceport America, guided by yours truly, and I promise lots of chocolate in the factory…

“And I would just like to end by saying, welcome to the dawn of a new Space Age!”

Image tajne from inside VSS Unity during the four minutes of weightlessness. Credit: Virgin Galactic

By allowing regular citizens the chance to go to space, they hope that more people will experience the Overview Effect and be inspired to help find solutions to problems here on Earth. The contest will remain open to submissions until Aug. 31st, 2021, the details of which can be found on Omaze.com. The winning entry (winner and guest) will be announced on or around September 29th, 2021.

So… his announcement was about a giveaway a la “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” And he even referenced Willy Wonka, chocolate, and factory in the process? SO called it! While donations are not necessary to enter, every donation made will go to support Space for Humanity (S4H), a non-profit organization dedicated to “democratizing space” through its Sponsored Citizen Astronaut Program.

The post-celebrations that accompanied the landing featured a performance by Grammy-nominated singer Khalid who debuted a new song, titled “New Normal” (a possible shout-out to the new age of space exploration?) and an earlier hit song, “Better/Talk.” Chris Hadfield was there as well to pin FAA Wings onto the lapels of the Unity 22 crew, who are now officially Commercial Astronauts. As always, Hadfield had some inspired words to share as he issued the wings:

“It has been a tremendous day here in New Mexico, a beautiful, sunny day. It’s the time of year where from the sycamores and the maples, the little keys, after having worked so hard to grow vertically, are going to detach from the mother ship of their tree and float and tumble and plant a seed somewhere else.

“And the wings that are the Virgin Galactic wings, that I have the huge privilege of pinning on the crew, are those sycamore seeds and the sycamore wings. It’s just a beautiful acknowledgment of the work, and the passion, and the risk, and the accomplishment of everyone here, and specifically, these four astronauts.”

External image of the VSS Unity “feathering” its wings in preparation for descent. Credit: Virgin Galactic

This mission was the 22nd test flight of the VSS Unity, which was named by late Stephen Hawking “as a vehicle that will unite the world through space.” The flight also reportedly fulfilled its test objectives, which included evaluating the crew cabin, the potential for research, and the five-day pre-flight training program. And as Branson was quoted as saying in the post-flight press release issued by his company:

“I have dreamt about this moment since I was a child, but nothing could have prepared me for the view of Earth from space. 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.

“Our mission is to make space more accessible to all. In that spirit, and with today’s successful flight of VSS Unity, I’m thrilled to announce a partnership with Omaze and Space for Humanity to inspire the next generation of dreamers. For so long, we have looked back in wonder at the space pioneers of yesterday. Now, I want the astronauts of tomorrow to look forward and make their own dreams come true.”

Next up, Jeff Bezos and his historic crewed flight aboard the New Shepard spacecraft (RSS First Step Crew Capsule)! On this inaugural crewed flight, Bezos will be joined by his brother Mark and veteran aviator and female aerospace trailblazer Wally Funk. This event, which will take place on Tuesday, July 20th, is also sure to be a media circus and will be broadcast live from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One facility near the town of Van Horn, Texas.

We can also anticipate that Bezos and others will take the opportunity to make inspiring speeches of how they are fulfilling a personal dream of going to space, and how they hope that countless others will now be able to follow. After that, there’s not much left to do but wait for Elon Musk to try and up the ante even further. What will it be? An inaugural flight around the Moon with the #dearMoon project crew?

Or perhaps the Starship’s inaugural flight to Mars? It’s hard to say and the possibilities are as numerous as they are profound. Musk, the ball’s in your court! While we’re waiting, be sure to watch the live stream in its entirety, courtesy of Virgin Galactic:

Further Reading:

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today's Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.

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