Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson rode his company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane into the skies over New Mexico today and did something that no billionaire has done before.
In the company of five crewmates, Branson became the first billionaire to take a rocket-powered ride on his own company’s spaceship, rising above the 50-mile mark that the Federal Aviation Administration considers the boundary of outer space.
At its peak, the VSS Unity plane rose to an altitude of 53.5 miles (86.2 kilometers). On the way down, Branson said it was the “experience of a lifetime.”
“I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid,” he told the crowd at New Mexico’s Spaceport America during a post-landing ceremony. “Honestly, nothing could prepare you for the view from space. The whole thing was just magical.”
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane crossed its 50-mile-high space boundary over New Mexico for the first time today, after months of challenges.
The trip by VSS Unity marks the first time a spacecraft has been launched so high from a New Mexico spaceport. Unity passed the 50-mile mark twice during tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, in 2018 and 2019. Since then, the plane and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, dubbed VMS Eve, have been transferred to their operational home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.
Virgin Galactic goes with the U.S. Air Force’s 50-mile definition for the boundary of space — rather than the internationally recognized 100-kilometer (62-mile) boundary, known as the Karman Line.
Today’s flight followed the standard profile for a SpaceShipTwo trip: The twin-fuselage Eve made an airplane-style takeoff from Spaceport America with Unity bolted to its underbelly. Around the target altitude of 44,000 feet, Unity was released from its mothership and fired up its hybrid rocket engine to rise spaceward.
Virgin Galactic is gearing up for its first spaceflight from its new home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America this fall — and says planetary scientist Alan Stern will be among the first commercial spacefliers.
During his upcoming spaceflight, which is yet to be scheduled, Stern will practice astronomical observations using a low-light-level camera that was previously employed during space shuttle flights. He’ll also be fitted with sensors that will monitor his vital signs from just before the two-hour flight until after its landing.
“You spark this industry with tourists, but I predict in the next decade the research market is going to be bigger than the tourist market,” Stern said at the time.
A decade later, the unexpected twist turned out to be that suborbital research flights preceded tourism trips as money-makers for Virgin Galactic and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Just this week, Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship flew a dozen experiments for paying customers on an uncrewed test flight to the edge of space and back. Scientific payloads have become a standard add-on for Virgin Galactic’s crewed test flights as well.
Now the stars seem to be aligning for commercial operations: Today, Virgin Galactic laid out the roadmap that it says should lead to SpaceShipTwo Unity’s first test flight to space and back from Spaceport America this fall.
The company said it’s conducting a series of rehearsals on the ground — and the pilots are using SpaceShipTwo’s carrier airplane, known as WhiteKnightTwo or VMS Eve, as an “in-flight simulator” for the approach and landing.
Chief pilot Dave Mackay explained that “the crew can practice the identical approach and landing pattern to the one they will fly in Unity – with much of the same information displays, and the same view out the window.”
Three scientific payloads will ride on SpaceShipTwo during the powered test flight, thanks to funding from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. There’ll just be the two pilots on board — Stern and other would-be passengers will have to wait a while longer.
“Although preparations are going well, we are not quite at the stage where we can confirm specific planned flight dates for either our VSS Unity or VMS Eve test flights,” Virgin Galactic said in today’s update.
All of which means Alan Stern – and hundreds of other potential spacefliers who have signed up for trips on SpaceShipTwo – will probably be watching their e-mailbox (and Virgin Galactic’s Twitter account) very closely in the weeks to come.
Update for 5:49 p.m. PT: I’ve revised this report to make clear that Stern won’t be aboard SpaceShipTwo during its next test flight to space in New Mexico – though I’m betting he’d like to be.
Virgin Galactic says it’s letting customers pay $1,000 refundable deposits toward suborbital trips on its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, resuming spaceflight sales after a hiatus of more than a year.
In a news release, Virgin Galactic reported that 7,957 people have signed up on its website to register interest in such trips. Starting Feb. 26, all those people will be able to put their money where their interest is.
The company hasn’t yet set the price or the timetable for newly reserved trips under its “One Small Step” program. But based on past statements, the eventual price tag will be more than the $250,000 that Virgin Galactic was charging before it suspended ticket sales in December 2018.
If at first you don’t succeed … try, try, try again. That’s the formula that the University of Washington’s Society for Advanced Rocket Propulsion followed to win the top prize at this year’s Spaceport America Cup competition, held over the weekend in New Mexico.
The SARP team took the Judge’s Choice and Overall Winner Award at the world’s largest collegiate rocket engineering contest, which is run by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association and drew 120 teams from 14 countries. Each team is required to design, build and fly a rocket that can reach 10,000 feet or 30,000 feet, depending on the contest category.
SARP’s chief engineer, Jess Grant, said this year’s win comes after a string of three disappointments.
After two successful crewed test flights to a 50-mile-high space milestone, Virgin Galactic says it’s shifting its operations from California to New Mexico’s Spaceport America — lock, stock and spaceship.
Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, made the announcement in Santa Fe today, in the company of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other state dignitaries. The company said the transfer is beginning immediately and will continue over the summer, to minimize the disruption for the school-age children of employees.