Sir Richard Branson сonquered space: British businessman Sir Richard Branson is on his way to fulfilling his lifelong dream of flying to the edge of space.
His Virgin Galactic rocket plane has embarked on a 1.5-hour flight, during which it will reach an altitude where the sky turns black and the Earth’s horizon recedes into the distance.
The entrepreneur says he wants to evaluate the experience before letting paying customers on board next year.
The flight over New Mexico began shortly after 08:30 EST (3:30 p.m. BST).
Virgin Galactic is providing an online broadcast of the event.
Sir Richard has come a long way to get to this point. He first announced his intention to build a space plane in 2004, with the expectation that it would be commercially available by 2007.
But technical difficulties, including a fatal accident during a test flight in 2014, made the space project one of the most challenging of his career.
“I’ve wanted to go into space since I was a kid, and I want to give hundreds of thousands of other people over the next 100 years the opportunity to go into space, hopefully,” Sir Richard told the BBC.
“And why shouldn’t they go to space? Space is extraordinary; the universe is magnificent. I want people to be able to look back at our beautiful Earth, come home and work very hard to try to do something magical with it, to take care of it.”
How does his rocketplane work?
The vehicle, known as Unity, will be taken by a much larger aircraft to an altitude of about 15 kilometers (50,000 feet), where it will be released.
The rocket engine in the back of the Unity will then ignite and lift the craft into the sky. The engine will burn for 60 seconds, during which time Sir Richard, his three crew members and the two pilots in front will have a remarkable view of the planet below.
The maximum altitude reached by Unity is about 90 km (55 miles, or 295,000 feet), but closer to the top of the climb Sir Richard will begin to enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness and be able to float around the cockpit and look out the window.
Eventually, however, he will have to strap himself into his seat for the return to the spaceport in New Mexico.
What will he see out the porthole?
Throughout the flight, Sir Richard will receive instructions from Beth Moses. She is the chief astronautical instructor for Virgin Galactic, a company owned by a businessman. Besides the company’s test pilots, Moses is the only person who has experienced the whole experience of flying. The view, she says, is “just phenomenal.”
“The pictures don’t convey it. It’s just so bright and beautiful. I saw the ocean, half of the United States and half of Mexico. I saw green land and white snow-capped mountains,” she told BBC News.
“Because you’re weightless and still and the ship has stopped and you can just soak it all in, really timeless. It’s imprinted on my soul.”
Who is Sir Richard’s competitor?
Unity is a suborbital ship. That means it cannot gain the speed and altitude necessary to stay in space and circle the globe.
The only other close-to-market suborbital system belongs to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. He has a rocket and capsule he calls the New Shepard, and on July 20 he will set off on the first flight with a crew.
The retail billionaire is set to fly just over 100 kilometers over Texas with his brother Mark, famed female aviator Wally Funk and a mystery man who bid $28 million (£20 million) at a ticket auction.
But while Sir Richard has a line of about 600 people who have already made deposits for tickets worth up to $250,000 (£180,000), Mr. Bezos has so far said little about how he intends to commercialize New Shepard.
Is the competition friendly?
Sir Richard says he spoke to Jeff Bezos on the phone, and they wished each other well in their space endeavors. But undoubtedly there is some edge to their relationship.
Mr. Bezos was the first to announce his mission, and only then did Sir Richard move his own published schedule to qualify for the first flight.
On Friday, Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin space company published a tweet mocking Virgin Galactic’s Unity vehicle. The message repeated the claim that anyone who flies a rocketplane will forever have an asterisk next to their name because they will not reach the “internationally recognized” altitude at which space begins – the so-called Carman line of 100 kilometers.
The tweet also states that Unity’s environmental impact is much greater than that of New Shepard. Virgin Galactic told the BBC that the carbon footprint of a flight on Unity is equivalent to a business flight from London to New York, but that all of the company’s activities are offset.
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From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021
View original tweet on Twitter
The U.S. government recognizes the boundary of space at about 80 kilometers (50 miles) and awards astronaut wings to anyone who exceeds that altitude.