British billionaire Richard Branson on Sunday soared more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane and safely returned in the vehicle’s first fully crewed test flight to space, a symbolic milestone for a venture he started 17 years ago.
Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees strapped in for the ride, 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.
“We’re here to make space more accessible to all,” an exuberant Branson, 70, said shortly after embracing his grandchildren following the flight. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”
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.
“Congratulations on the flight,” Bezos said on Instagram. “Can’t wait to join the club!”
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. Joining the reception was another billionaire space industry pioneer, Elon Musk, who is also the founder of electric carmaker Tesla Inc.
Grammy-nominated R&B singer Khalid performed his forthcoming single “New Normal” after the flight.
The gleaming white spaceplane was carried aloft attached to the underside of the dual-fuselage jet VMS Eve (named for Branson’s late mother) from Spaceport America, a state-owned facility near the aptly named town of Truth or Consequences. Virgin Galactic leases a large section of the facility.
Reaching its high-altitude launch point at about 46,000 feet (14,020 m), 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 (86 km) high.
The spaceplane’s contrail was clearly visible from the ground as it soared through the upper atmosphere, to the cheers of the crowd below.
At the apex of the climb with the rocket shut down, the crew then experienced a few minutes of microgravity, before the spaceplane shifted into re-entry mode, and began a gliding descent to a runway back at the spaceport. The entire flight lasted about an hour.
“I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth,” Branson said in a video from space.
Back at a celebration with supporters from a stage outside Virgin Galactic’s Gateway to Space complex at the spaceport, he and crewmates doused one another with champagne.
Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield pinned Virgin-produced astronaut wings onto the blue flight suits worn by Branson and his team. Official wing pins from the Federal Aviation Administration will be presented later, a company spokesman said.
Virgin Galactic has said it plans at least two further test flights of the spaceplane in the months ahead before beginning regular commercial operation in 2022. One of those flights will carry four Italian astronauts-in-training, according to company CEO Michael Colglazier.
He said 600 wealthy would-be citizen astronauts have also booked reservations, priced at about $250,000 per ticket for the exhilaration of supersonic flight, weightlessness and the spectacle of spaceflight.
Branson has said he aims ultimately to lower the price to about $40,000 per seat as the company ramps up service, achieving greater economies of scale. Colglazier said he envisions eventually building a large enough fleet to accommodate roughly 400 flights annually at the spaceport.
The Swiss-based investment bank UBS has estimated the potential value of the space tourism market reaching $3 billion annually by 2030.
Proving rocket travel safe for the public is key.
An earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.
Branson’s participation in Sunday’s flight, announced just over a week ago, typified his persona as the daredevil executive whose various Virgin brands – from airlines to music companies – have long been associated with his ocean-crossing exploits in sailboats and hot-air balloons.
His ride-along also upstaged rival astro-tourism venture Blue Origin and its founder, Bezos, in what has been popularized as the “billionaire space race.” Bezos has been planning to fly aboard his own suborbital rocketship, the New Shepard, later this month.
Branson has insisted he and Bezos are friendly rivals and were not racing to beat one another into space.
“We wish Jeff the absolute best and that he will get up and enjoy his flight,” Branson said at a post-flight news conference.
Blue Origin, however, has disparaged Virgin Galactic as falling short of a true spaceflight experience, saying that unlike Unity, Bezos’s New Shepard tops the 62-mile-high-mark (100 km), called the Kármán line, set by an international aeronautics body as defining the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.
“New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin said in a series of Twitter posts on Friday.
However, U.S. space agency NASA and the U.S. Air Force both define an astronaut as anyone who has flown higher than 50 miles (80 km).
A third player in the space tourism sector, Musk’s SpaceX, plans to send its first all-civilian crew (without Musk) into orbit in September, after having already launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA.
A Virgin Galactic spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that Musk had bought a ticket for his own space ride. The newspaper said that it was not clear how far up the waiting list Musk is for a seat.
Representatives for Musk could not be immediately reached. Virgin Galactic and Tesla did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The spaceplane’s two pilots were Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci. The three other mission specialists were Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Virgin Galactic’s lead operations engineer Colin Bennett; and Sirisha Bandla, a research operations and government affairs vice president.
All recounted afterward being mesmerized by the view through Unity’s windows. Mackay described the immense blackness of space against the brightness of Earth’s surface, “separated by the beautiful blue atmosphere, which is very complex and very thin.”
“Cameras don’t do it justice,” he told reporters. “You have to see it with your own eyes.”
Jeff Bezos, world’s richest man, carries out inaugural space voyage
Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, and three crewmates soared high above the Texas desert aboard his space venture Blue Origin‘s New Shepard launch vehicle on Tuesday and returned safely to Earth, a historic suborbital flight that helps to inaugurate a new era of private commercial space tourism.
The spacecraft ignited its BE-3 engines for a liftoff from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One facility about 20 miles (32 km) outside the rural town of Van Horn, flying about 66.5 miles (107 km) above the planet’s surface. There were generally clear skies with a few patchy clouds on a cool morning for the launch.
The 57-year-old American billionaire flew on a voyage lasting about 10 minutes and 20 seconds to the edge of space, nine days after Briton Richard Branson was aboard his competing space tourism company Virgin Galactic’s successful inaugural suborbital flight from New Mexico.
New Shepard was designed to hurtle at speeds upwards of 2,200 miles (3,540 km) per hour to an altitude beyond the so-called Kármán line – 62 miles (100 km) – set by an international aeronautics body as defining the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.
After the capsule separates from the booster, the crew was due to have unbuckled for a few minutes of weightlessness. Then the capsule returned to Earth under parachutes, using a last-minute retro-thrust system that expelled a “pillow of air” for a soft landing in the Texas desert.
Bezos gave a thumbs-up sign from inside the capsule after landing on the desert floor before stepping out, wearing a cowboy hat and blue flight suit, and giving company employees high fives.
The mission was part of a fiercely competitive battle between Bezos’ Blue Origin and fellow billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to tap a potentially lucrative space tourism market the Swiss bank UBS estimates will be worth $3 billion annually in a decade.
Bezos and the other passengers climbed into an SUV vehicle for a short drive to the launch pad before walking up a tower and getting aboard the gleaming white spacecraft, with a blue feather design on its side. Each passenger rang a shiny bell before boarding the craft’s capsule.
Branson got to space first, but Bezos was due to fly higher – 62 miles (100 km) for Blue Origin compared to 53 miles (86 km) for Virgin Galactic – in what experts call the world’s first unpiloted space flight with an all-civilian crew. It represents Blue Origin’s first crewed flight to space.
Bezos, founder of ecommerce company Amazon.com Inc, and his brother Mark Bezos, a private equity executive, were joined by two others. Pioneering female aviator Wally Funk, 82, and recent high school graduate Oliver Daemen, 18, become the oldest and youngest people to reach space.
Bezos embraced Funk after the landing.
The flight coincides with the anniversary of Americans Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin becoming the first humans to walk on the moon, on July 20, 1969. New Shepard is named for Alan Shepard, who in 1961 became the first American in space.
Funk was one of the so-called Mercury 13 group of women who trained to become NASA astronauts in the early 1960s but was passed over because of her gender. Daemen, Blue Origin’s first paying customer, is set to study physics and innovation management in the Netherlands. His father, who heads investment management firm Somerset Capital Partners, was on site to watch his son fly to space.
The launch was witnessed by members of the Bezos family and Blue Origin employees, and a few spectators gathered along the highway before dawn. Spectators applauded during the flight.
MINUTES OF WEIGHTLESSNESS
New Shepard is a 60-foot-tall (18.3-meters-tall) and fully autonomous rocket-and-capsule combo that cannot be piloted from inside the spacecraft. It is completely computer-flown and had none of Blue Origin’s staff astronauts or trained personnel onboard.
Virgin Galactic used a spaceplane with a pair of pilots on board.
The reusable Blue Origin booster had previously flown twice to space.
The launch represented another step in the race to establish a space tourism sector that Swiss investment bank UBS estimates will reach $3 billion annually in a decade. Another billionaire tech mogul, Elon Musk, plans to send an all-civilian crew on a several-day orbital mission on his Crew Dragon capsule in September.
On Twitter, Musk wished the Blue Origin crew “best of luck” hours before the launch.
Blue Origin aims for the first of two more passenger flights this year to happen in September or October.
Blue Origin appears to have a reservoir of future customers. More than 6,000 people from at least 143 countries entered an auction to become the first paying customer. The auction winner, who made a $28 million bid, dropped out of Tuesday’s flight, opening the way for Daemen. Virgin Galactic has said 600 people have booked reservations, priced at about $250,000 per ticket.
Branson has said he aims ultimately to lower the price to about $40,000 per seat.
Bezos has a net worth of $206 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires. He stepped down this month as Amazon CEO but remains its executive chairman.
U.S. approves Blue Origin license for human space travel ahead of Bezos flight
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Monday it approved a Blue Origin license to carry humans on the New Shepard launch system into space.
Former Amazon.com Chief Executive Jeff Bezos is set to fly to the edge of space on Blue Origin’s maiden crewed voyage on July 20.
Blue Origin is authorized to carry humans while its FAA license is valid through August and is approved to conduct these missions from its Launch Site One facility in Texas, the agency confirmed.
Blue Origin was required to verify its launch vehicle’s hardware and software worked safely during a test flight and the FAA confirmed it met regulatory requirements.
Blue Origin’s flight will come a little over a week after space-tourism rival Virgin Galactic successfully sent a crew including its founder, British billionaire Richard Branson, to the edge of space.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, as well as the space firm founded by rival billionaire Elon Musk, are working to usher in a new era of routine commercial civilian space travel in what has been popularized as the “billionaire space race.”
Proving rocket travel is safe for the public is key to developing what the Swiss-based investment bank UBS estimates will be a $3 billion annual space tourism market in a decade.
Shenzhou-12 astronauts enter space station core module
Three Chinese astronauts on board the Shenzhou-12 spaceship entered the country’s space station core module Tianhe on Thursday, according to the China Manned Space Agency.
At 18:48 Beijing Time, Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo entered Tianhe hours after the spaceship successfully docked with the core module.
The trio will stay in space for three months and start their work as planned.
China on Thursday morning successfully launched spacecraft Shenzhou-12 with three astronauts to its space station core module Tianhe.
It is China‘s seventh manned mission to space and the first in the process of building China‘s space station. It is also the first in nearly five years after the country’s last manned mission.
The spacecraft, carried by a Long March-2F carrier rocket, was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China‘s Gobi Desert at 09:22 Beijing Time.
The spacecraft completed orbital status setting after entering the orbit and conducted a fast autonomous rendezvous and docking with the front docking port of Tianhe at 15:54 Beijing Time, forming a three-module complex with the cargo craft Tianzhou-2.
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