SPACEPORT AMERICA, N.M. — Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and five other people flew to the edge of space on the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle July 11, the culmination of an effort that started nearly 17 years ago.
The SpaceShipTwo vehicle, named VSS Unity, took off from Spaceport America in the southern New Mexican desert at 10:40 a.m. Eastern, attached to its WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. Takeoff was delayed by 90 minutes because of weather overnight that slowed launch preparations. The vehicles flew to an altitude of about 13,700 meters before WhiteKnightTwo released Unity at 11:25 a.m. Eastern.
Unity then ignited its hybrid rocket motor for a burn lasting 60 seconds. The suborbital spaceplane flew to an altitude of 85.9 kilometers, then glided back to Earth, landing on the runway at the spaceport at 11:38 a.m. Eastern to complete what the company called the “Unity 22” mission.
The vehicle was piloted by Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci, who previously flew on the second SpaceShipTwo flight to space in February 2019. Mackay also piloted Unity on its previous flight from Spaceport America May 22.
For the first time, Virgin Galactic flew four people in the vehicle’s cabin in addition to the two pilots. Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor at the company who flew with Mackay and Masucci in 2019, served as the test director for cabin activities. Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer at Virgin Galactic, evaluated cabin equipment and procedures. Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, evaluated the ability to do human-tended research by performing a plant experiment from the University of Florida arranged through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.
However, the person on the flight that attracted the most attention was Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, dubbed “Astronaut 001” by the company in promotional materials. Virgin Galactic’s previous plans were to fly Branson on the next SpaceShipTwo flight in the vehicle’s test program. However, the company announced July 1 that Branson would be part of this crew to “evaluate the private astronaut experience” that the company will offer to future customers.
“As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honored to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin,” Branson said in the July 1 announcement of his flight.
“Tapping into Sir Richard’s expertise and long history of creating amazing customer experiences will be invaluable as we work to open the wonder of space travel and create awe-inspiring journeys for our customers,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in the same statement.
Long journey to space
In that same statement, Branson alluded to the long path to get to this flight. “After more than 16 years of research, engineering, and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry,” he said.
Branson announced plans for Virgin Galactic in September 2004, agreeing to license technology developed by Scaled Composites for its SpaceShipOne suborbital vehicle, at the time on the cusp of winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize. At the time, Virgin projected beginning commercial service within a few years.
Extended delays in the development of what became known as SpaceShipTwo repeatedly pushed out the start of commercial service, a process punctuated by tragedy. In 2007, three Scaled Composites employees were killed and three others injured during a test of the hybrid propulsion system the company was developing for SpaceShipTwo.
In October 2014, the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, broke apart in flight when co-pilot Mike Alsbury prematurely unlocked the feathering mechanism that raises the vehicle’s twin booms for reentry. Alsbury died and pilot Peter Siebold was seriously injured.
Virgin Galactic rolled out VSS Unity in February 2016 and, after a series of glide and powered test flights, finally reached the altitude the company considered space — 50 miles (80 kilometers), the point at which U.S. government agencies award astronaut wings — on a December 2018 flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The company performed a second flight beyond 80 kilometers in February 2019 before doing additional work on the vehicle, including upgrades to a horizontal stabilizer that suffered damage in the February 2019 flight.
Virgin Galactic shifted operations from Mojave to Spaceport America in early 2020. However, the first powered flight to space from the spaceport, in December, was aborted at engine ignition because of a computer reset. It took the company several months to complete modifications the vehicle’s electronics, which were successfully tested on the May 22 flight.
Battle of the billionaires
Branson’s decision to go on this flight rather than the later one as previously planned appeared to be a game of one-upmanship with Virgin’s rival, Blue Origin, and its own billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos.
Blue Origin announced May 5 that, after 15 uncrewed tests of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, it would fly people for the first time on New Shepard on July 20. The company did not immediately disclose who would be on board beyond announcing an auction for one of the seats, with the proceeds going to Club for the Future, an educational nonprofit affiliated with Blue Origin.
Bezos then announced June 7 that he would be on that first flight along with his brother Mark. On July 1, just hours before Virgin Galactic revealed that Branson would be on the upcoming SpaceShipTwo flight, Blue Origin said that the third person would be Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” women who underwent astronaut tests in the early 1960s but never given the opportunity to fly in space. Blue Origin has not yet disclosed the identity of the fourth person, who submitted the winning bid of $28 million for the seat in the auction that closed June 12.
Branson’s decision to fly nine days before Bezos is the latest round in the rivalry between the two billionaires and their companies. On July 9, Blue Origin published an infographic that compared the two companies’ vehicles. It boasted of the “largest windows in space” on New Shepard compared to “airplane-sized windows” on SpaceShipTwo, as well as an escape system on New Shepard that SpaceShipTwo lacks and a “minimal” impact on the ozone layer.
From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021
It also highlighted the differences in altitude the two vehicles reach. While SpaceShipTwo has not flown higher than about 90 kilometers, New Shepard routinely exceeds 100 kilometers on its flights, putting it above the 100-kilometer Kármán Line frequently used as one definition of space. Blue Origin called the Kármán Line the “internationally recognized boundary of space” although that boundary has no international legal significance.
Blue Origin’s decision to publish that infographic two days before Branson’s flight struck many as petty. The argument is not new, though: in an interview in February 2019 Bezos warned that those who fly on SpaceShipTwo might not be considered astronauts. “We’ve always had as our mission that we always wanted to fly above the Kármán Line because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not,” he said, comparing New Shepard with SpaceShipTwo. “And so that’s something they’re going to have to address in my opinion.”
Bezos and Blue Origin were more conciliatory in an Instagram post the day before the flight. “Wishing you and the whole team a successful and safe flight tomorrow,” Bezos wrote. “Best of luck!”