Richard Branson

US, July 12: A billionaire, philanthropist, the business tycoon who has close ties to the British royal family, Sir Richard Branson has everything that one could imagine and 17 years ago he dreamed of becoming a space traveller. On July 11, 2021, Branson became an astronaut ushering in a new era of private space tourism.

Branson boarded his company Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 flight from the Mojave Desert in New Mexico and propelled into suborbital space where he enjoyed over three minutes of weightlessness in microgravity. He was accompanied by India-born Sirisha Bandla and four other passengers.

“I was once a kid with a dream, looking up to the stars,” Branson told to media.

Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees strapped in for the ride, has touted the mission as a precursor to a new era of space tourism, with the company he founded in 2004 poised to begin commercial operations next year.

The success of the flight also gave the flamboyant entrepreneur bragging rights in a highly publicized rivalry with fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, the Amazon online retail mogul who had hoped to fly into space first aboard his own space company’s rocket.

Space industry executives, future customers, and other well-wishers were on hand for a festive gathering to witness the launch, which was live-streamed in a presentation hosted by late-night television comedian Stephen Colbert. Among those present was fellow billionaire and space industry pioneer Elon Musk, who also is the founder of electric carmaker Tesla Inc.

The gleaming white spaceplane was carried aloft on Sunday attached to the underside of the dual-fuselage jet VMS Eve (named for Branson’s late mother) in a takeoff from Spaceport America, a state-owned facility near the aptly named town of Truth or Consequences. Virgin Galactic leases a large section of the 18,000-acre site.

Reaching its high-altitude launch point at about 46,000 feet, the VSS Unity passenger rocket plane was released from the mothership and fell away as the crew ignited its rocket, sending it streaking straight upward at supersonic speed to the blackness of space some 53 miles (85.9 km) high.

Virgin has said it plans at least two further test flights of the spaceplane in the months ahead before beginning regular commercial operation in 2022.

Several hundred wealthy would-be citizen astronauts have already booked reservations, priced at around $250,000 per ticket.

The Swiss-based investment bank UBS has estimated the potential value of the space tourism market to reach $3 billion annually by 2030.

The 90-minute-long flight pushed Virgin Galactic ahead of its rival Blue Origin led by former Amazon chief Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk SpaceX, which has largely ferried astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) along with commercially transporting cargo to and from the flying laboratory.

What is Unity 22?

The Unity 22 flight, which was to take off around 6 pm IST was initially delayed due to bad weather conditions. An ecstatic Branson had said “It’s a beautiful day to go to space,” ahead of the flight. The trip home aboard the gleaming white space plane, named Unity. The WhiteKnight aircraft, VMS Eve, carried the rocket-powered spaceship VSS Unity as it took off from a horizontal runway flown by two pilots. The aircraft climbed an altitude of 50,000 feet about 15 kilometres above the surface, before dropping VSS Unity in the air.

The brief, up-and-down flight — the space plane’s portion took only about 15 minutes, or about as long as Alan Shepard’s first U.S. spaceflight in 1961 — was a splashy and unabashedly commercial plug for Virgin Galactic, which plans to start taking paying customers on joyrides next year.

The first person to blast off in his spaceship

Richard Branson became the first person to blast off in his spaceship, beating Bezos, the richest person on the planet, by nine days. He also became only the second septuagenarian to go into space. Astronaut John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.

Bezos sent his congratulations, adding: “Can’t wait to join the club!” — though he also took to Twitter a couple of days earlier to enumerate how he believes his company’s rides will be better.

With about 500 people watching, including Richard Branson’s family, Unity was carried aloft underneath a twin-fuselage aircraft. Then, at an altitude of about 8 1/2 miles (13 kilometres), Unity detached from the mother ship and fired its engine, reaching more than Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, as it pierced the edge of space.

Spectators cheered, jumped into the air, and embraced as the rocket plane touched down on Earth. Richard Branson pumped his fists as he stepped out onto the runway and ran toward his family, bear-hugging his wife and children and scooping up his three grandchildren in his arms.

Mike Moses, a top executive at Virgin Galactic, said that apart from some problems with the transmission of video images from inside the cabin, the flight was perfect, and the ship looked pristine.

“That was an amazing accomplishment,” former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, a one-time commander of the International Space Station, said from the sidelines. “I’m just so delighted at what this open door is going to lead to now. It’s a great moment.” Virgin Galactic conducted three previous test flights into space with crews of just two or three.

The flamboyant, London-born founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways wasn’t supposed to fly until later this summer. But he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Bezos announced plans to ride his rocket into space from Texas on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Branson denied he was trying to outdo Bezos.

Also Read: Aliens exist’, says ex-Israeli space chief

Branson’s other chief rival in the space-tourism race among the world’s richest men, SpaceX’s Elon Musk, came to New Mexico to watch and congratulated Branson for a “beautiful flight.”

Bezos’ Blue Origin company intends to send tourists past the so-called Karman line 62 miles (100 kilometres) above Earth, which international aviation and aerospace federations recognise as the threshold of space.

But NASA, the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration, and some astrophysicists consider the boundary between the atmosphere and space to begin 50 miles (80 kilometres) up.

The risks to Branson and his crew were underscored in 2007 when a rocket motor test in California’s Mojave Desert left three workers dead, and in 2014, when a Virgin Galactic rocket plane broke apart during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.

Ever the showman, Richard Branson insisted on a global live stream of the Sunday morning flight and invited celebrities and former space station astronauts to the company’s Spaceport America base in New Mexico. R&B singer Khalid performed his new single “New Normal” — a nod to the dawning of space tourism — while CBS “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert served as master of ceremonies.

Before climbing aboard, Richard Branson, who has kite-surfed the English Channel and attempted to circle the world in a hot-air balloon, signed the astronaut logbook and wisecracked: “The name’s Branson. Sir Richard Branson. Astronaut Double-oh-one. License to thrill.”

But asked afterwards whether he is planning any more adventures, Branson said he will “definitely give it a rest for the time being” because “I’m not sure it would be fair to put my family through another one.” He said he thinks he holds the record for being pulled out of the sea five times by helicopter.

Virgin Galactic already has more than 600 reservations from would-be space tourists, with tickets initially costing $250,000 apiece. And upon his return to Earth, Branson announced sweepstakes drawing for two seats on a Virgin Galactic jaunt. Blue Origin is waiting for Bezos’ flight before announcing its ticket prices.

Kerianne Flynn, who signed up in 2011 to fly with Virgin Galactic, had butterflies ahead of the launch Sunday.

“I think there’s going to be nothing like going up there and looking back down on the Earth, which is what I think I’m most excited about,” she said. She added: “Hopefully the next generations will be able to explore what’s up there.”

Also Read: What’s a suborbital flight? An aerospace engineer explains it

Blue Origin and Musk’s SpaceX both fly Apollo-style, using capsules atop rockets, instead of an air-launched, reusable spaceplane.

SpaceX, which is already launching astronauts to the space station for NASA and building moon and Mars ships, plans to take tourists on more than just brief, up-and-down trips. Instead, they will orbit around the Earth for days, with seats costing well into the millions. The company’s first private flight is set for September.

When will tourism flights begin

The company is likely to launch tourists into space by next year after three more flights by the end of 2021. The company has already sold close to 600 tickets to people from 60 different countries at prices ranging from $200,000 to $250,000. Virgin Galactic aims to conduct 400 flights per year.