Virgin Galactic spaceship carrying founder Richard Branson has safely touched down after flying to the edge of space on Sunday in a voyage the British billionaire called an “experience of a lifetime”.
The VSS Unity vessel reached a peak altitude of about 85km beyond the boundary of space according to the United States, allowing the passengers to experience weightlessness and admire the Earth’s curvature.
“Congratulations to all our wonderful team at Virgin Galactic for 17 years of hard hard work to get us this far,” Branson said during a live feed, as the spaceship glided back to Spaceport America in New Mexico.
“We’re here to make space more accessible to all,” Branson said shortly after the flight. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”
Touchdown occurred about 9:40am local time, about an hour after takeoff.
Sunday’s launch of the VSS Unity passenger rocket plane marked the company’s 22nd test flight of its SpaceShipTwo system and its fourth crewed mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere. It was also the first to carry a full complement of space travellers, two pilots and four “mission specialists” – Branson among them.
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) July 11, 2021
Virgin has said it plans at least two further test flights of the spaceplane in the months ahead before beginning regular commercial operation in 2022.
This is no discount travel service. But demand is apparently strong, with several hundred people already having booked reservations. The Swiss-based investment bank UBS has estimated the potential value of the space tourism market reaching $3 billion annually by 2030.
Proving rocket travel safe for the public is key, given the inherent dangers of spaceflight.
The success of the flight on Sunday also gave Branson bragging rights in a highly publicised rivalry with fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, the Amazon online retail mogul who had hoped to fly into space first aboard his own space company’s rocket. “Congratulations on the flight,” Bezos said on Instagram. “Can’t wait to join the club!”