After 17 years of delay and disappointment, and after burning through more than $1bn of his personal fortune, Sir Richard Branson on Sunday appeared within moments of realising his dream of becoming an astronaut.
The Virgin founder, 70, and five other crew left the New Mexico desert floor on the VSS Unity spacecraft at 8.40am local time, suspended beneath a specially designed carrier plane. The flight had been pushed back by 90 minutes after a midnight storm blew up dust from the barren scrubland, delaying the craft’s rollout from its hangar at Spaceport America.
The space craft is due to be carried to an altitude of 50,000ft, where it will be released and fire its rocket engine, propelling it straight up at three times the speed of sound to reach the edge of space.
The flight comes nine days before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is due to go even higher in a rocket built by his private space company, Blue Origin.
The billionaires’ personal escapades cap a race to prove that their rocket companies are finally safe for commercial operations, opening up suborbital space as a tourist destination.
Branson had been scheduled to join a later Virgin Galactic test flight, but Sunday’s ride was hastily announced two weeks ago when it looked like he would be beaten to zero-gravity by Bezos.
In a sign of the marketing war for space tourists that lies ahead, Blue Origin poured cold water on Branson’s feat even before he took to the sky on Sunday. It pointed out that Virgin Galactic’s space plane does not reach the Karman line — the point, 100km above the Earth, that marks the internationally recognised boundary of outer space.
The criticism forced Branson on to the defensive in the days leading up to his flight. He pointed out that the US considers space to begin at a height of 80km and claimed that his company’s passengers would spend the same four minutes in zero-gravity as Blue Origin’s.
Over the weekend, the Bezos camp also dismissed the VSS Unity as a “high altitude aeroplane” and highlighted supposed safety shortcomings, including the lack of an escape system in the event of an emergency and the fact that it has only risen above 80km three times before.
But in New Mexico, the moment belonged to Branson. Hundreds of press, company employees and guests gathered in the pre-dawn darkness to witness his launch, a testament to his skills as a master showman who has long used his appetite for personal risk-taking to polish the Virgin brand. Elon Musk, another billionaire space entrepreneur, visited Branson on Sunday morning to wish him well and watch the launch.
Virgin Galactic moved into the Spaceport two years ago but until Sunday had held only one test flight since then. It had been delayed for years by a 2014 accident when one of its spaceships broke apart, killing a test pilot. An earlier accident during a rocket test on the ground killed three employees who had been contracted to build Virgin Galactic’s spaceship.
Sunday’s flight — and Branson’s part in it — is ostensibly part of the series of tests that Virgin Galactic needs to go through before it opens up fully to commercial operations. The Virgin founder was said to be about to help assess whether the company had met its “cabin and customer experience objectives”.
Two more test flights are planned before full commercial operations begin.