SpaceShipTwo touched down at 11:38AM ET after sending Branson to space
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and a crew of Virgin Galactic employees nailed a clean touchdown in New Mexico on Sunday after launching to space aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane. The mission, dubbed Unity 22, marked the fourth test flight to space for the vehicle and the first for Branson, the 70-year-old daredevil entrepreneur who’s been waiting over a decade for his debut trek to the edge of space.
The SpaceShipTwo plane, dubbed VSS Unity took off at 10:40AM ET attached to the belly of Virgin Galactic’s twin-fuselage WhiteKnight plane. Unity dropped from the center of the carrier craft at an altitude of around 45,000 feet roughly 50 minutes after takeoff. Moments later VSS Unity ignited its single rocket engine to blast to the edge of space, some 55 miles above the ground. The crew basked in a few moments of weightlessness before gliding back to land in New Mexico at Spaceport America, the central hub for Virgin Galactic’s nascent space tourism business.
Branson shared congratulatory hand shakes with his fellow crew members, calling the flight “an experience of a lifetime,” as heard on plane’s choppy communications line to ground control.
“Feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready,” Branson tweeted hours before takeoff. He said he started the morning off with a visit from Elon Musk, who’s in New Mexico to watch the mission in person. Onboard SpaceShipTwo with Branson are two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, and three other crew members in the cabin: Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses, Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett, and Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations Sirisha Bandla. The crew will test out Virgin Galactic’s cabin experience.
Big day ahead. Great to start the morning with a friend. Feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready.
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 11, 2021
A video Branson tweeted Sunday morning showed the billionaire riding a bike on a road toward Virgin Galactic’s spaceport just before sunrise, flanked by two white SUVs. He met up with Moses, Bennett, and Bandla, with Moses saying: “You’re late! Cmon, get suited up, let’s go!” For attendees, the company’s spaceport in New Mexico looked like a music festival on the other side of the spaceport — dozens of guests watched the mission kick off on a giant screen at the center of a stage set up just outside the building, Spaceport America. Stephen Colbert is hosting the mission’s livestream, and singer-songwriter Khalid will perform a new single on that stage after Branson’s flight.
SPACE TOURISM READY FOR TAKEOFF
Virgin Galactic previously planned to fly Branson as a passenger on a later test flight, but earlier this month the company announced he’d be bumped up to fly on Unity 22 as a crew member instead. That set Branson up to make it to space ahead of his rival Jeff Bezos, another billionaire who plans to fly his space company’s New Shepard rocket to the edge of space on July 20th. It’s a PR-heavy display of competition, but for Branson, who turns 71 on July 18th, it’s executing a decades-long dream to go to space. And for Virgin Galactic, flying its billionaire founder is seen as a show of confidence that SpaceShipTwo is safe for anyone to fly. In 2014, the company suffered a mid-flight disaster during a test flight that killed one pilot and severely injured another. After that flight, Branson vowed to travel on a future flight before the company started flying customers.