Sir Richard Branson inaugurates space tourism
He goes on 'extraordinary' space flight
UK businessman Sir Richard Branson has fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition: flying to the edge of space in the very first ever space tourism mission.
His Virgin Galactic rocket plane Unity took off for a 1.5-hour mission to reach an altitude where the sky turns black and the Earth’s horizon curves away into the distance.
The entrepreneur said he wanted to evaluate the experience before allowing paying customers aboard next year.
It’s been a long road for Sir Richard to get to this point. He first announced his intention to make a space plane in 2004, with the expectation he’d have a commercial service available by 2007.
But technical difficulties, including a fatal crash during a development flight in 2014, have made the space project one of the most challenging ventures of his career.
I’ve wanted to go to space since I was a kid, and I want to enable hopefully hundreds of thousands of other people over the next 100 years to be able to go to space.
And why shouldn’t they go to space? Space is extraordinary; the Universe is magnificent. I want people to be able to look back at our beautiful Earth and come home and work very hard to try to do magic to it to look after it.
Sir Richard to the BBC.
What is Unity?
The vehicle, known as Unity, was carried by a much bigger airplane to an altitude of about 15km (50,000ft), where it was released.
A rocket motor in the back of Unity then ignited and blasted the ship skyward. The motor burned for 60 seconds, by which time Sir Richard, his three crewmates and the two pilots up front, had a remarkable view of the planet below.
The maximum height achievable by Unity is roughly 90km (55 miles, or 295,000ft), but towards the top of the climb Sir Richard enjoyed a few minutes of weightlessness and he was able to float around the cabin and to look out of the window.
What did he see from the window?
Sir Richard took instruction throughout the flight from Beth Moses. She’s the chief astronaut instructor at the businessman’s Virgin Galactic company. Apart from the firm’s cadre of test pilots, Moses is the only person who’s so far experienced the exhilaration of an ascent. The view out of the window, she said, is “just phenomenal”.
“Pictures don’t do it justice. It’s just so bright and beautiful. I saw the ocean, and halfway up the US and halfway down into Mexico. I saw the green of the land and the white snow-capped mountains,” she told BBC News.
“Because you are weightless and still, and the ship has come to a stop, you can just soak it in, in a really timeless way. It stuck in my soul.”