The sky over the Spaceport America in southern New Mexico was afire with lightning last night. The storm was sufficiently fierce to postpone Virgin Galactic’s planned rollout of its twin airships, mothership Eve and a space vehicle called VSS Unity, from their hangar.
The delay meant that lift-off for today’s planned flight, which would send a crew on Unity 50 miles above Earth, would be pushed back 90 minutes. But no matter – Richard Branson still had plenty of time to beat Jeff Bezos into outer space.
And he did it. At 9:25 am MT, about 45 minutes after taking off from the spaceport at the delayed time, the spaceship component of the duo, Unity, was ready to be freed from Eve. Branson and five of his colleagues – two pilots, three other mission specialists – were on board. Branson awaited the ignition of the rocket engine with a smile frozen on his face.
Then fire belched from the vehicle, and in just under two minutes, it reached altitude. Branson was at the edge of space, around 80 kilometres up. Fifteen minutes later, Branson and his crew were back on Earth, ready to talk about how Virgin Galactic would be offering an identical experience to anyone willing to pay $250,000 or so. Hundreds are already on the waiting list.
Branson is the king of spectacle, so it’s not surprising that the launch had a festival feel to it. In the hours before the launch, Branson’s Twitter feed, along with those of his colleagues, was stuffed with slick videos intended to portray a hero’s journey. We saw him arriving at the spaceport on a bicycle – pedalled across the Atlantic? – greeting his crewmates, who were already decked out in their custom-designed Under Armour suits. “You’re late!” they told him. “Suit up!”
A longer version of the video showed them signing into a log book, with Branson identifying himself as Astronaut 001. The Virgin Galactic founder posted a photo of a welcome observer to the launch—Elon Musk. As Branson walked to the launch pad, he was surrounded by cheering spectators; he paused his fist-bumping stroll to sign some souvenirs offered by little children. The live feed itself was co-hosted by Stephen Colbert.
Waiting in the wings was Khalid, who had written a song, “New Normal,” to be unveiled upon the end of the ride.
The only disappointment was that the King of Media’s live feed in the capsule failed during the two minutes of actual space travel. Spectators were denied a view of Branson and crewmates spinning in weightless bliss. (The closest we got was about three seconds of heavily pixelated limbs waving around.) Nor did we hear from the British entrepreneur during his time freed from gravity.
“We’ll be sure to capture his magical words and share them with the world when available,” said one of the Virgin commentators on the live feed.
Lurking behind today’s Virgin Galactic flight is some not-so-warm-and-fuzzy competition between billionaires. After a successful May crewed test flight, Virgin Galactic’s plan was to have three more test flights this year with Branson on the second of these. But after Bezos announced that he would be among the passengers on Blue Origin’s first crewed flight, Branson hastily changed the Virgin timetable.
Unity would head back into flight on July 11, with the quickest turnaround the company has pulled off. And Branson would be on board, along with a cabin-full of his employees. In addition to the personal risk, there was a financial one: Virgin Galactic became a public company in late 2019 by merging with an existing firm on the stock exchange, and an unsuccessful flight would screw the pooch, in terms of share price.
Caution seemed reasonable. In 2014, a test flight ended in disaster when the SpaceShipTwo rocket vehicle came apart soon after the rockets fired. One pilot died and another was seriously injured. Branson persisted and funded a second space vehicle, dubbed Unity.
Each of today’s crew of six was assigned a task, including Branson, whose job would be assessing the experience of future space tourists on the flight – because who could be more impartial in evaluating the experience than the person who has most to gain from people lining up to buy tickets for future flights?
Virgin’s literal path to space is unique. Bezos’ Blue Origin uses traditional means of sending people to space. That means having the travellers climb seven flights of steps to a capsule sitting on top of a giant rocket booster and literally blasting off to the skies.
Virgin Galactic uses a technology originally developed by a company owned by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and built by a firm called Scaled Composites, strapping a rocket-powered vehicle underneath a much larger double-fuselage airplane.
The crew drives up to the ship in SUVs and climbs about six steps on a tiny metal staircase to the hatch. When the bound vehicles reach an altitude of around 45,000 feet, Eve drops its cargo. Once clear of the mothership, Unity’s pilots fire the rockets. The flight tops off about 55 miles above Earth, just high enough to sample weightlessness.
Whether or not it qualifies as “outer space” depends on whose definition you accept: The Department of Defence won’t consider you an astronaut unless you cross the Kármán line of 100 kilometres, which is around 62 miles.
The Federal Aviation Administration is more lenient, granting you astronaut wings at 50 miles, which we may as well call the Branson Line.
Ever since Branson announced his beat-Bezos timetable, the pair have wished each other well at the same time they frantically traded microaggressions. Blue Origin scored a coup by including 82-year-old Wally Funk, who had been trained as one of the original Mercury astronauts but was unable to join the program because NASA wasn’t sending women to space. (Funk had also been on the Virgin Galactic waiting list.)
But Branson scored points when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk decided to show up at the New Mexico spaceport to cheer him on. Late in the week, Blue Origin released a testy head-to-head comparison between the two systems. Bigger windows! Better for the environment! And, most pointedly, it emphasised that Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule clears the Kármán line, which it considers “real” space.
A Virgin Galactic pilot sent a huffy tweet (later deleted) noting that Blue Origin has so far only flown a mannequin. On the eve of the flight, Bezos did post tepid encouragement: “Wishing you and the whole team a successful and safe flight tomorrow. Best of luck!” he posted on Instagram.
Indeed, luck was with Branson today. True, Virgin Galactic’s claims that this flight is a ground-breaking one for commercial space is somewhat overblown. Russia was first to charge astronauts for rides into space.
The first private crewed space launch came with Virgin’s predecessor, Scaled Composites. (Branson paid to brand it with the Virgin logo and later bought Allen’s assets) SpaceX was the first private company to send astronauts into orbit. Blue Origin will be the first private company to charge a private passenger.
But give Branson this: Virgin Galactic is the first space tourism company to send its billionaire owner into space, at least space as defined by the FAA. Branson will forever have that bragging right. And one expects he will exercise it endlessly.
- A Wired report