TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES: Swashbuckling entrepreneur Richard Branson rocketed into space on Sunday aboard his winged rocket ship in his boldest venture yet, beating out fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos.
Branson, 71, and five crew members, among them aeronautical engineer Sirisha Bandla, entered weightlessness in about three minutes, viewed Earth’s curvature in four minutes, and returned safely home to land on a runway.
‘Seventeen years of hard work to get us here,’ Mr. Branson exclaimed as he congratulated his team on the return trip.
Mr. Branson was the first person to take off in his own spacecraft, beating Mr. Bezos by nine days. Moreover, he became just the second septuagenarian to leave for space. (John Glenn flew on the shuttle at the age of 77 in 1998.)
After Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams, Ms. Bandla is the third woman of Indian descent to fly into space. Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma is the only Indian to have traveled into space.
As about 500 spectators watched, including Mr. Branson’s wife, children and grandchildren, a twin-fuselage aircraft with the space plane attached underneath took off in the first stage of the flight.
Once detached from the mother ship at an altitude of 13 kilometers, the space plane fired its engines and reached the edge of space. The flight up and down the sleek white ship, named Unity, took less than 15 minutes.
Virgin Atlantic Airways’ flamboyant founder, born in London, wasn’t supposed to leave the ground until later this summer. Nevertheless, he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Mr. Bezos announced plans to ride his own rocket into space from Texas on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. In a statement, Mr. Branson denied that he was trying to beat Mr. Bezos. He also claimed he had kitesurfed the English Channel and flown around the world in a hot-air balloon.
Elon Musk, chairman of Tesla and an arch-rival in the race for space tourism, arrived in New Mexico to witness the flight and tweeted: ‘Godspeed!’
Mr. Bezos also sent his best wishes, and he took to Twitter to explain how his company will make flying easier.
Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, plans to launch tourists past the Karman line, which is recognized by international aviation and aerospace federations as the threshold to space.
But NASA, the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration and some astrophysicists believe that the boundary between the atmosphere and space begins 80 kilometers up.
Mr. Branson and his crew faced risks in 2007 when a rocket motor test in the Mojave Desert left three workers dead, and in 2014, when their rocket plane broke apart, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.
Known for his showmanship, Mr. Branson insisted on live streaming the launch Sunday morning, as well as inviting celebrities and former space station astronauts to the company’s Spaceport America complex in New Mexico. R&B singer Khalid performed his new single New Normal’ – a nod to the dawning of space tourism – while CBS ‘Late Show’ host Stephen Colbert served as master of ceremonies.
Virgin Galactic already has more than 600 reservations from would-be space tourists, with tickets costing $250,000 each. Before announcing its ticket prices, Blue Origin is waiting for Bezos’ flight.
Musk’s SpaceX, which is already developing a ship for the moon and one for Mars and launching astronauts to the International Space Station, is competing for space tourism dollars. The capsules will do more than take brief up-and-down trips; they will go into orbit around the Earth, with seats costing well into the millions. The first private flight is scheduled for September.
As of right now, Musk has not announced any plans to go into space.
Former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, who commanded the last shuttle flight a decade ago, said, ‘It’s a whole new horizon out there, new opportunities, new destinations.’ He now works for Boeing, which is testing its own space capsule.
‘This is a little like the advent of commercial air travel, only 100 years later,’ Ferguson added. ‘There is a lot in the wings.’