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Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic reports reaching space for the third time

The flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico comes as the company looks to fly paying customers

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Richard Branson is getting closer to his trip to space.

For years, the British billionaire has dreamed of developing a spacecraft that could fly paying customers to the edge of space and back. And now, after a third successful mission out of the atmosphere Saturday morning, his company Virgin Galactic has said he could get his chance later this year.

On Saturday, Virgin Galactic said on Twitter that a pair of its pilots, C.J. Sturckow and Dave Mackay, fired the engine of the space plane known as SpaceShipTwo Unity, pointed the nose toward the skies over New Mexico and roared to a height of 55 miles, past the threshold at which the Federal Aviation Administration recognizes that a person has reached space. The spacecraft then fell back toward Earth, as the pilots guided it to the tarmac of Spaceport America, which the company says will be home to its space tourism business.

In an interview after the flight, Branson, who watched from the flight line, called the flight “electric.”

“The whole thing went exactly as predicted,” he said. “It was elegant, it was beautiful. We had all the lots of family and friends and relatives here.”

He added that there was also a sense of relief that the pilots landed safely. “Obviously in these early days of test flights, you’re relieved as much as excited. But it was just one of those magical days.”

The flight marked a significant milestone for Virgin Galactic and could pave the way for the 600 customers who have put down deposits on tickets to finally get the chance to fly after waiting years for the opportunity.

The successful mission comes at a critical time. Branson’s venture is facing competition from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which is also working to fly paying passengers on suborbital trips to the edge of space. After flying 15 successful missions on its New Shepard rocket and spacecraft, Blue Origin recently announced it would fly people for the first time on July 20, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Blue Origin is auctioning off a seat on that trip and the proceeds would benefit the company’s nonprofit, Club for the Future, which encourages young people to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. The highest bid as of Saturday morning was $2.8 million, but the company expects that to go up during a live auction on June 12.

Blue Origin has not said what it would charge for seats. In the past, Virgin has charged as much as $250,000, but it has said that ticket prices are likely to increase, at least in the short term.

Saturday’s flight was the first time Virgin Galactic has reached space in more than two years. In that time the company moved its operations from Mojave, Calif., to New Mexico. It also went public through a merger with a New York investment firm and appointed a new chief executive, Michael Colglazier, a former executive at Disney who is working to expand the company’s operations worldwide as well as build a fleet of spacecraft.

His vision is in line with “the roots of this company — to open space up,” Colglazier said in a recent interview with The Post. “It may not happen in the first year, it may not be the fifth year. But 10 years from now, 15 years from now this is going to be a normalized thing, and everyone should be aspiring to go to space.”

The company’s last flight attempt, in December, was aborted just as the engine fired. The company said the abort was triggered by electromagnetic interference from a flight computer system that caused the motor to shut down. The pilots then flew the vehicle back to the ground safely. That issue had been resolved, the company said, before Saturday’s flight.

In an interview after the flight, Colglazier said it represented “a great, confident step forward.” The company still has to process the data and inspect the vehicle before moving ahead to the next flight. But Colglazier said the company is “incredibly excited with what happened. It was a flawless flight.”

The company has said that if all goes to plan, it would continue the testing program with another flight, this time with two pilots and four company employees on board to test out the cabin. Branson would fly on the flight after that, which the company is planning for later this year.

Branson has dreamed of going to space for years and founded Virgin Galactic, what he calls the “world’s first commercial spaceline,” in 2004. When the company first reached space with a pair of pilots in 2018, Branson was on the flight line with his son watching. When commentators announced that the spacecraft had reached space, he wept openly.

In the interview Saturday, he said he’s been actively preparing for his spaceflight.

“One good thing about covid is it enabled me to get as fit as I’ve felt since I was in my 20s,” he said. “It’s great to be able to really work on getting your body fit for spaceflight, and I’m going to enjoy every single minute of it.”