Richard Branson has won the foot race among billionaires to blast off into space.
Branson, 70, and a crew of three others briefly achieved weightlessness on Sunday after his Virgin Galactic Unity 22 craft took off from the Spaceport America facility in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
“Nothing could prepare you for the view of Earth from space,” Branson said at the post-flight news conference. “It was just magical.”
The British billionaire was one of six passengers for the test flight that departed around 7:40 a.m. PT from the Spaceport America facility in Truth or Consequences, N.M. The plane touched down again in the New Mexico desert about an hour later, after achieving speeds of more the three times the speed of sound and vaulting up to more than 282,000 feet above Earth.
The Virgin Galactic live stream, hosted by Stephen Colbert, was glitchy but did offer grainy pictures of Branson and others floating around the Unity 22 capsule. Branson called it “the experience of a lifetime” and praised all those who put in “hard, hard work to get us this far.” Branson’s flight comes about a week before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has a scheduled July 20 trip through his Blue Origin exploration venture. And Tesla chief Elon Musk is behind space tourism venture SpaceX.
Musk was in New Mexico to cheer Branson on. Bezos gave his rival a thumbs-up via Instagram after Unity 22 completed its flight.
The Unity 22 craft took off with the boost of a traditional jet plane dubbed “Mothership Eve.” Unity 22 was tethered to the jet until it reached about 50,000 feet. At that point Unity 22 detached from the mothership and headed further up into the atmosphere — peaking at about 282,000 feet. The craft did not totally leave Earth’s orbit but Branson and crew members were able to achieve the feeling of weightlessness as they shot up far enough to escape Earth’s gravitational pull.
Branson hopes the media attention around today’s Unity 22 flight will jumpstart Virgin Galactic’s commercial space travel business. Virgin Galactic’s live stream of the flight included heavy promotion for future flights, emphasizing how similar it is to riding in a plane. At a certain altitude, the cabin “turns into a spacious three-dimensional playground” as passengers can float around in a gravity-free environment.
Branson also reinforced his reputation as a master marketer with Virgin Galactic’s historic flight. The Virgin logo was prominent on both aircrafts. The media attention the flight received made it a promotional platform to drive future ticket sales for the mode of transport Virgin Galactic calls its “spaceline.”
For once, the brash British showman seemed genuinely at a loss for words as he first tried to describe his experience in space in his first remarks at a ceremony held a little more than an hour after Unity 22 landed back at Spaceport America.
“I’m just taking it all in. It’s just unreal,” said Branson, who was decked out in a blue Virgin Galactic astronauts uniform and his signature look of sunglasses, goatee and circa-1970s feathered hair (attributes that were the butt of a few gentle jabs from Colbert during the early live stream). Branson has emphasized how he was inspired as a young man by watching NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 and hopes to do the same for others with Virgin Galactic.
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 11, 2021
While Branson may have been floored by his jaunt to space, he didn’t miss the opportunity to deliver a sales pitch to the dozens of cameras assembled to capture the historic moment in space travel.
“Virgin Galactic is the spaceline for Earth. We’re here to make space more accessible to all and turn the next generation of dreamers into the astronauts of today and tomorrow,” he said. He announced a contest offering the chance to win two seats about an upcoming Virgin Galactic commercial flight. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” he said.
Virgin Galactic said last month it has received a key approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to proceed with its planned launch of commercial flights that will be billed as offering the experience of weightlessness and stunning views of Earth.
But there’s still no official word on the timing of its public debut. Branson maintains the company has a waiting list of more than 600 people who have reserved tickets for flights priced at $250,000 apiece. The company suffered a setback in 2014 when one of its test pilots died in a crash over the Mojave Desert in California.
The contest with online charity fundraising platform Omaze is likely a response to criticism that the billionaires’ space race is a costly indulgence with environmental consequences at a time when there are pressing humanitarian and social justice concerns.
Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004. Fellow entrepreneur Musk gave the Virgin Group founder a personal send off as Branson noted in a tweet about two hours before the launch.
Big day ahead. Great to start the morning with a friend. Feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready.
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 11, 2021
(Pictured: Richard Branson riding in Unity 22)