Sir Richard Branson has realised his aim of reaching space after nearly 17 years of development and over a billion dollars invested in Virgin Galactic.
The VSS Unity spacecraft, which is carrying the billionaire founder and three Virgin Galactic staffers, rocketed above the skies of New Mexico on Sunday.
VSS Unity launched its rocket engine and sped to faster than the speed of sound in an ascent to the edge of space after being released by a carrier aircraft named VMS Eve above 40,000 feet.
When the Virgin Galactic crew was weightless and floating around the spacecraft cabin, the VSS Unity performed a leisurely backflip in microgravity.
The vehicle then glided back through the atmosphere, landing on the Spaceport America runway from which it had taken off earlier.
Unity was piloted by Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci.
Chief astronaut trainer Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett, and VP of government affairs Sirisha Bandla are in the spacecraft’s cabin with Branson.
Mackay and Masucci, as well as Moses and pilots C.J. Sturckow and Mark Stucky, have all travelled to space before.
Pilots who have flown above 80 kilometres (approximately 262,000 feet) are officially classified as astronauts in the United States.
The VSS Unity can accommodate up to six passengers in addition to the two pilots. About 600 tickets for future trips have been reserved, with prices ranging from $200,000 to $250,000 each.
This was Virgin Galactic’s fourth mission, its second so far this year, and the first to carry more than one passenger.
The spaceflight had additional purposes in addition to flying Branson, as Virgin Galactic is continuing testing its spaceship system in preparation for commercial service in early 2022.
The four crew members are putting the spacecraft’s interior and Virgin Galactic’s training programme to the test to ensure that consumers are appropriately prepared for the trip.
Bandla will also put her research skills to the test while working at the University of Florida on a project involving plants in test tubes.
Virgin Galactic has three more spaceflights to develop before the end of the year, with two more likely this year.
Since seeing the Apollo moon landings, Branson has wanted to go to space and launched Virgin Galactic in 2004 to send private people into space.
He founded the corporation to purchase spacecraft designed by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, the company that constructed the SpaceShipOne aircraft, which won a $10 million award for flying twice to the edge of space in two weeks.
Branson’s deal with Scaled Composites resulted in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system.
A rocket engine explosion on the ground in 2007 killed three Scaled Composite employees, while the crash of the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise, in 2014 killed Virgin Galactic co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injured pilot Peter Siebold.
The business then constructed VSS Unity, which included further safety features to prevent future mishaps.
Unity was first launched into space in December 2018, after Virgin Galactic began testing it in 2016.
Virgin Galactic also rolled out its next spacecraft, VSS Imagine, earlier this year, the first of its next-generation SpaceShip III class of vehicles.
The US Federal Aviation Administration granted Virgin Galactic a licence expansion last month, allowing the business to transport passengers on future spaceflights.
With its most recent spaceflight test in May, the business completed a 29-element verification and validation programme for the FAA, clearing the final two regulatory goals.
Branson was not expected to travel on Sunday’s launch because Virgin Galactic has previously stated that the founder would fly on the company’s second-to-last test trip.
However, after fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos revealed on July 20 that he would ride on Blue Origin’s inaugural passenger voyage, Virgin Galactic altered its plan to transport Branson nine days before Bezos.
Branson is the first of the billionaire space business founders to ride his own spacecraft, having launched ahead of Bezos and Elon Musk on Sunday.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are competing in the suborbital space tourism market, with both companies’ spacecraft transporting people to the edge of space for a few minutes of floating in microgravity.
A SpaceX orbital journey, for example, costs tens of millions of dollars and often lasts many days or weeks in space.
Branson’s organisation believes there is a market for transporting up to 2 million passengers on suborbital spaceflights costing between $250,000 and $500,000, with the market expanding as costs fall down.