Billionaire and entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has successfully reached the edge of space during a test flight on board his Virgin Galactic rocket plane, Unity.
Launching took place at Spaceport America in New Mexico on July 11, where Branson and his crew of six – the two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, and three Virgin Galactic employees – Beth Moses, Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla – took the flight to the edge of space before safely gliding back down onto the runway just over an hour later.
Branson spoke of his experience in a press conference after the launch, saying: “I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid, but honestly nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space. The whole thing was just magical.”
Sir Richard’s rocket plane had been in development for 17 years before the flight finally took off. Branson’s original plan was to make a space plane for commercial service by 2007, but was hindered by technical difficulties, as well as a fatal crash during a development flight in 2014. However, Branson persisted, and his new venture is finally coming into fruition.
Unity is a sub-orbital vehicle, which means it cannot achieve the velocity and altitude necessary it needs to keep it up in space to circle around the globe under its own power.
Its design incorporates several glass windows to give its passengers stunning views during the climb, and the flight will also allow for passengers to experience a few moments of weightlessness, something only astronauts have had the privilege of experiencing so far.
During the flight, Unity was carried by a larger aeroplane to an altitude of about 15km (50,000ft) before it was released. A rocket motor at the back of Unity then ignited, allowing the rocket ship to make its trip to the boundary between Earth and space. Once finished, it started its high-rate descent back down to the ground, and Unity folded its tailbooms to stabilise the fall before gliding home.
Once back on the ground, Sir Richard and his crew were presented with commercial astronaut wings by the former space station commander and Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield.
Sir Richard hopes to begin commercial operations next year. Around 600 wealthy individuals have already booked and paid for reservations to travel on the space plane, with costs of up to $250,000 (£180,000) per ticket.
During this new age full of technical advancement, Branson believes that space tourism is the future.
“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.”