It was SpaceShipTwo’s fourth trip to the edge of space since 2018, and Virgin Galactic, the company Branson founded in 2004, says it will soon start flying paying customers regularly on similar jaunts, opening a new era in human space exploration.
Several companies in the growing commercial space industry, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, have developed spacecraft designed to allow private citizens, and not just NASA trained military fighter pilots and scientists, to earn the title of “astronaut.” (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Virgin Galactic seemed intent on making it clear that this was not a traditional NASA launch. Instead of a stoic countdown, there was a party-like atmosphere along the tarmac, a scene as much a spectacle as a space launch that even included a musical guest, Khalid, who debuted a new song during a performance here. The company’s live broadcast of the flight was hosted by comedian and late-night host Stephen Colbert, and Musk was on hand to watch Branson and the crew take off.
Unlike traditional rockets that launch vertically, Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo Unity takes off tethered to the belly of a mother ship. On Sunday, the mother ship, known as WhiteKnightTwo, lifted off from the tarmac here shortly after 10:30 a.m. Eastern time, delayed by about 90 minutes because high winds overnight had kept the ground crew from rolling it out of the hangar. The spaceship was released at about 11:25 a.m. Eastern time, the pilots ignited the engine and the spacecraft shot almost straight up as it thundered toward space.
The flight reached its apogee at 282,000 feet — 53.41 miles — where the passengers were able to unstrap and experience weightlessness. The spacecraft then fell back to earth and a landing at 11:39 Eastern time.
On board were pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, both of whom had flown to space on previous flights. Joining Branson in the crew compartment were Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs, Colin Bennett, the company’s lead operations engineer, and Beth Moses, its chief astronaut instructor. Moses, who is married to Mike Moses, the company’s president, flew on Virgin Galactic’s second spaceflight mission, in 2019.
Branson had originally been scheduled to fly aboard a flight scheduled for later this summer or early fall. But after the company successfully made it to space in May, he grew impatient.
“I’ve been itching to go, and they said they wanted somebody to properly test the astronaut experience,” Branson said in a recent interview with The Post. “And I was damned if I was going to let anyone take that seat.”
In a press conference after the flight, he said he wasn’t nervous about the trip. “We have nearly 1,000 of the best engineers in the world” who pored over every inch of the spacecraft, he said. His only concern, he said, was the possibility of a delay. "The only thing I was worried about was some tiny little something that would get in the way, something that would stop us from getting into space.”
He called the experience “just magical…. I’m just taking it all in." And added that, “having flown to space, I can see more clearly how Virgin Galactic is the spaceline for Earth.”
By moving up his flight, he was able to beat Bezos to space by nine days. Bezos, who recently stepped down as Amazon’s CEO, is scheduled to fly on his company’s suborbital New Shepard capsule on July 20.
Branson has repeatedly denied that he was in a race with Bezos and said in the interview that it was just “an incredible, wonderful coincidence that we’re going up in the same month.”
But when asked about a rivalry with Bezos on CNBC, he couldn’t help himself, saying, “Jeff who?”
Branson’s antics elicited a strong response from Bezos’s Blue Origin. Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s CEO, issued a statement last week wishing Branson well but also pointing out that Virgin Galactic is “not flying above the Kármán line, and it’s a very different experience.” The Kármán line, at 100 km or 62 miles, is an internationally recognized threshold for where space begins. Virgin Galactic flies to just over 50 miles, the altitude at which the Federal Aviation Administration will award crew members astronaut wings.
On Saturday, however, Bezos wished Branson luck in a post on Instagram. “Wishing you and the whole team a successful and safe flight tomorrow,” Bezos wrote. “Best of luck!”
Branson would now be eligible for his wings, fulfilling a dream he has had since he founded Virgin Galactic, lured by the romance of space travel and the possibility of commercializing an endeavor that had been monopolized by governments.
One of the first major steps on that path was the 2004 Ansari X Prize, a $10 million competition to put a commercial vehicle into space for the first time. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft had funded an effort, led by Burt Rutan, the legendary aircraft designer, to build what was called SpaceShipOne. Branson fell in love with the ship, purchased the rights to the technology and was able to slap a Virgin logo on the spacecraft as it won the prize.
Watching the spacecraft take off, Branson turned to Allen and said, according to Allen’s memoir, “Paul, isn’t this better than the best sex you ever had?”
Branson then turned his attention to creating the “world’s first commercial spaceline” and vowed that within a matter of years passengers would soon be flying to space on a regular basis.
Virgin Galactic set off to build SpaceShipTwo, which would be far larger and more powerful vehicle than its predecessor. But the program quickly ran into technical problems. And in 2014, it suffered an accident midflight that killed one of the pilots, Michael Alsbury, and severely injured the other, Peter Siebold, who parachuted to the ground. Branson considered giving up on his quest, but ultimately decided that the risk was worth it and carried on, vowing to learn from the accident and build a safer and more robust spaceship.
The company finally made it to space in December 2018, and again a few weeks later, in early 2019. It then moved its operations from Mojave, Calif., to New Mexico’s Spaceport America, the gleaming $220 million facility funded by taxpayers. In 2019, the company announced it would go public through a merger with a New York investment firm and hired a new CEO and leadership team.
Then, in May, it reached space for the third time in a flight with two pilots, and, after consulting with the company’s engineers, Branson decided that he would be on the next flight.
The flight comes amid a flurry of spaceflight activity that taken together amounts to a renaissance for human exploration.
Just over a year ago, no one had flown to space from U.S. soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, a long, ignominious drought that ended when Elon Musk’s SpaceX flew a pair of NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, in a test flight to the International Space Station.
Since then, SpaceX has flown two more human spaceflight missions. Boeing, which is also under contract from NASA to transport the agency’s astronauts to and from the station, hopes to fly people in the months to come.
SpaceX plans to fly a mission dubbed Inspiration4 in September. Financed by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, a group of four civilians would spend three days or so orbiting the Earth in SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. Axiom Space, a firm based in Houston, is arranging trips for very wealthy groups of people to spend a week on the space station. A voyage that costs some $55 million.
In addition to the flight on July 20, Bezos’s Blue Origin has two more flights planned for this year and more than half a dozen next year.
In all, that would culminate to an era of spaceflight like the barnstormers in the early days of aviation. But whether it is successful depends on whether the industry can continue to fly people reliably and safely.
After the flight, Branson was greeted by his three-year-old granddaughter, who said, “Papa gone to the moon. Papa gone to the moon.”
Branson let it slide. “I’m not going to disillusion her,” he said.