Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson rocketed into space Sunday, an edge-of-the-seat sub-orbital test flight intended to demonstrate his company's air-launched spaceplane is ready for passengers who can afford the ultimate thrill ride.
And it appeared to do just that, zooming to an altitude just above 50 miles and giving Branson and his five crewmates about three minutes of weightlessness and spectacular views of Earth before plunging back into the atmosphere for a spiralling descent to touchdown at Virgin's New Mexico launch site.
"I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid but honestly, nothing could prepare you for the view of Earth from space," Branson, 70, said after landing, at a rare loss for words. "It was just magical. ... I'm just taking it all in, it's unreal."
The flight effectively upstaged Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who plans a sub-orbital space flight of his own aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft on July 20 as the two companies compete for passengers in the emerging commercial space marketplace. Bezos complimented Branson and his team after landing, posting a note to Instagram saying "congratulations on the flight. Can't wait to join the club!"
Branson's trip began in dramatic fashion as Virgin's twin-fuselage carrier jet — with the VSS Unity rocket-powered spaceplane bolted under its wing — lifted away from the company's Spaceport America launch site near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Joining the globe-trotting billionaire aboard Unity were pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci, along with Virgin astronaut trainer Beth Moses, flight engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, the company's vice president of government relations.
With a throng of reporters and a global audience following along on YouTube and across Virgin's social media channels, the Virgin mothership VMS Eve slowly climbed to an altitude of about 45,000 feet and then, after a final round of safety checks, released Unity high above the New Mexico desert.
Seconds later, Mackay and Masucci, both veterans of earlier test flights to space, ignited Unity's hybrid rocket motor, slamming the crew back in their seats as the spacecraft shot forward and pitched up onto a near-vertical trajectory.
Burning rubberized solid propellant with liquid nitrous oxide, Unity's hybrid motor fired for about one minute, accelerating the craft to about three times the speed of sound before shutting down.
The spaceplane continued zooming upward along a ballistic trajectory, giving Branson and company a chance to briefly unstrap, float about the cabin and marvel at the spectacular view as Unity reached its maximum altitude of 282480 ft — 18480 ft above what NASA and the FAA consider the "boundary" of space.
Live video from inside the spacecraft showed Branson and his crewmates floating free of their seats and enjoying the sensation of weightlessness, not to mention the out-of-this-world view.
"To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars," Branson said while his cremates cavorted in microgravity. "Now I'm an adult, in a spaceship with lots of other wonderful adults, looking down to our beautiful, beautiful Earth. "To the next generation of dreamers: If we can do this, just imagine what you can do!" he said, before floating out of his seat.
Using an innovation pioneered by aircraft designer Burt Rutan, Unity's wing and tail fins are designed to pivot upward 60 degrees once out of the atmosphere, giving the spaceplane the aerodynamics of a badminton shuttlecock, ensuring a belly-down re-entry.
Mackay and Masucci rotated the wing upward shortly after the rocket motor shut down and left it in the "feathered" orientation until it descended to around 55,000 feet when it was pivoted back parallel to the fuselage, turning Unity into a glider. From there, the pilots guided the spaceplane through a spiralling descent, lined up on Spaceport America's 12,000-foot-long runway and settled to a picture-perfect landing, closing out a flight that lasted 59 minutes from takeoff to touchdown.
Mike Moses, Virgin president for space flight and safety, said an initial look at the data showed Unity came through its latest mission in great shape."We've looked at the data, we've done our quick engineering walk around (and) the ship looks pristine, no issues whatsoever," he said. "We'll take our time, do all the detailed inspections, and then we'll figure out when we're ready to go again. But ship looked perfect."
NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Space Force agree that space effectively begins at an altitude of 50 miles where the atmosphere is so thin that wings, rudders and other aerodynamic surfaces no longer have any effect.
As a result, Branson, Bennett and Bandla are now considered full-fledged Virgin astronauts, a distinction granted to Mackay, Masucci and Moses after earlier test flights.
Sunday's launching marked Unity's 22nd test flight, its fourth trip to space, Virgin's first with a six-person crew on board and the first for Branson
Virgin plans two more test flights, but company officials hope to begin launching paying customers, at $250,000 or more per seat, in early 2022. Flush with success Sunday, Branson announced charity sweepstakes benefitting Space for Humanity, saying two winners will be selected to join one of the initial commercial flights.