Sir Richard Branson rockets to the edge of space
(BBC) – Sir Richard Branson has reached space, according to his company, Virgin Galactic.
The UK entrepreneur took the ride of his life above New Mexico in the US in a rocket plane the company has been developing for 17 years.
The vehicle, known as Unity, was released at altitude from the belly of a larger aircraft, before then igniting its motor to race vertically upwards.
Sir Richard is now heading back down to Earth.
We await official confirmation of the height reached by Sir Richard, but it was scheduled to be around 90km (55 miles; 29,000ft).
He was accompanied on the mission by Unity’s two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, and three Galactic employees – Beth Moses, Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla.
Sir Richard billed the flight as a test of the space tourism experience he expects to begin selling to customers from next year.
Some 600 individuals have already paid deposits for tickets that will cost them up to $250,000 (£180,000).
These are all people who want to reach a height where they can see the sky turn black and marvel at the Earth’s horizon as it curves away into the distance. Such a flight should also afford them about five minutes of weightlessness during which they will be allowed to float around inside Unity’s cabin.
It’s been a long road for Sir Richard to get to this point. He first announced his intention to make a space plane in 2004, with the belief he could start a commercial service by 2007.
But technical difficulties, including a fatal crash during a development flight in 2014, have made the space project one of the most challenging ventures of his career.
“I’ve wanted to go to space since I was a kid, and I want to enable hopefully hundreds of thousands of other people over the next 100 years to be able to go to space,” Sir Richard told the BBC before Sunday’s flight.
“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 and come home and work very hard to try to do magic to it to look after it.”
Space tourism is a sector being rekindled after a decade’s hiatus, and it’s about to get very competitive.
Throughout the 2000s, seven wealthy individuals paid to visit the International Space Station (ISS). But this adventurism, organised under the patronage of the Russian space agency, ceased in 2009.
Now, new initiatives abound. As well as Sir Richard’s approach, there are projects coming from Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and the California tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
The Russians, too, are reprising their commercial flights to the ISS, and there are even those who want to launch private space stations for people to visit. Among these is Axiom, a company started by a former Nasa ISS programme manager.
Sir Richard received a message of goodwill from Mr Bezos on Saturday, although there is clearly some edge in their relationship.
A day earlier, Mr Bezos’s Blue Origin space company had issued a tweet that took a pop at Virgin Galactic’s Unity vehicle. The posting repeated a claim that anyone who flew on the rocket plane would forever have an asterisk by their name because they wouldn’t reach the “internationally recognised” altitude for where space begins – the so-called Kármán line of 100km.
The US government, however, has always recognised the boundary of space to be at about 80km (50 miles) and it awards astronaut wings to anyone who exceeds this altitude. Before Sunday, only 580 people had ever been above this height.