This morning Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic reached an important milestone in the development of commercial space travel. Together with a team of specialists, Branson traveled to the edge of space aboard the VSS Unity and made it safely back to Earth. With this, Branson and his company have also fired the latest volley in the ongoing race between the titans of the commercial space industry (aka NewSpace).
The coverage began at 7:30 a.m. PST (10:30 a.m. EST) and was broadcast live on the company website, Youtube channel and social media accounts. As promised, the event was hosted by comedian Stephen Colbert and co-hosted by a panel comprised of famed former astronaut and science communicator Chris Hadfield, industry professional and popular science communicator Kelly Jerardi, and Virgin Galactic structural engineer Veronika McGowan.
Branson started in style, rode his bike to Spaceport America and joined the rest of the crew, who then entered the facility and signed the “astronaut log”. These included aerospace engineer Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Virgin Galactic’s senior astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett (003 astronaut), the company’s chief operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla (astronaut 004), vice president of government affairs and research for Virgin Galactic.
At 8:21 a.m. PDT (11:21 a.m. EDT), the mission started with its carrier – the VMS Eve (named after Branson’s deceased mother) – and was flown to its take-off altitude of over 13,715 m (45,000 ft). At 9:15 a.m. PDT (12:15 p.m. EDT), the VSS Unity detached itself from VMS Eve and turned on its rocket motor for a full burn time of 60 seconds. At this point, Branson and his crewmates were given the go-ahead to release their seat belts and float through the cabin.
The spacecraft reached a top speed of Mach 3 (3,700 km / h; 2,300 mph) and reached an altitude of 86 km (53.5 mi) – just below the Kármán Line (the official limit of space). The entire flight was captured by flight cameras mounted on the mother ship, spaceship, and chase aircraft. Branson and his crew also tweeted the event live, sharing photos of their ascent and the four minutes of weightlessness they experienced.
“Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” tweeted Branson. “I’ve dreamed of this moment since I was a child, but traveling into space was more magical than I ever imagined.” Shortly thereafter, the VSS Unity “feathered” its wings and began gliding safely back to Earth, landing on the runway of Spaceport America at around 9:30 am PDT (12:30 pm EDT). As promised, Branson had a “very exciting” announcement to share during the post-flight press event:
“Today Virgin Galactic is proud to announce that it has partnered with Amaze to open up space for everyone. If you visit Amaze.com/space to enter, you will have the opportunity to go into space … You will enter the Amaze competition to win not one but two seats on one of Virgin Galactic’s first commercial space flights. And with my Willy Wonka hat on a tour of Spaceport America, truly guided by you, and I promise a lot of chocolate in the factory …
“And in conclusion I would just like to say: Welcome to the dawn of a new space age!”
Image tajne from inside VSS Unity during the four minutes of weightlessness. Photo credit: Virgin Galactic
By giving ordinary citizens the opportunity to travel into space, they hope that more people will experience the overview effect and be inspired to find solutions to problems here on earth. The competition remains open for submissions until August 31, 2021. Please visit Omaze.com for details. The winning entry (winner and guest) will be announced on or around September 29, 2021.
So … his announcement was about a giveaway a la “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. And he was even referring to Willy Wonka, chocolate and factory? SO called it! Although donations are not required to participate, all donations are donated to Space for Humanity (S4H), a non-profit organization dedicated to the “democratizing space” through its Sponsored Citizen Astronaut Program.
The post-landing celebrations included an appearance by Grammy-nominated singer Khalid debuting a new song titled “New Normal” and an earlier hit song. Better / Talk. ”Chris Hadfield was also there to pin the FAA Wings to the lapels of the Unity 22 crew, who are now officially commercial astronauts. As always, Hadfield had some inspired words to share when exhibiting the wings:
“It was a great day here in New Mexico, a beautiful, sunny day. It is the time of year when the little keys from the plane trees and maples, after working so hard to grow vertically, detach themselves from the mother ship of their tree and swim and fall and plant a seed elsewhere.
“And the wings that are the Virgin Galactic wings that I’m allowed to attach to the crew are those sycamore seeds and the sycamore wings. It’s just a nice recognition of the work, the passion, the risk and the effort of everyone here, especially these four astronauts. “
Exterior shot of the VSS Unity “feathering” its wings in preparation for the descent. Photo credit: Virgin Galactic
This mission was the 22nd test flight of the VSS Unity, described by the late Stephen Hawking as the “vehicle that will unite the world through space”. The flight also reportedly met its test objectives, which included assessing the crew cabin, research potential and the five-day pre-flight training program. And as Branson was quoted in his company’s press release after the flight:
“I have dreamed of this moment since I was a child, but nothing could have prepared me for the view of the earth from space. We are at the forefront of a new space age. As the founder of Virgin, I was honored to test the incredible customer experience as part of this remarkable crew of mission specialists and now astronauts. I can’t wait to share this experience with aspiring astronauts around the world.
“Our mission is to make space more accessible for everyone. With that in mind, and with today’s successful flight from VSS Unity, I am excited to announce a partnership with Omaze and Space for Humanity to inspire the next generation of dreamers. That is how long we look back in amazement at yesterday’s space pioneers. Now I want the astronauts of tomorrow to look ahead and make their own dreams come true. “
Next up are Jeff Bezos and his historic crewed flight aboard the New Shepard spacecraft (RSS First Step Crew Capsule)! On this first manned flight, Bezos is accompanied by his brother Mark and the experienced aviator and female aerospace pioneer, Wally Funk. This event, which takes place on Tuesday, July 20, is sure to be a media circus as well and will be broadcast live from Blue Origins Launch Site One facility near the town of Van Horn, Texas.
We can also assume that Bezos and others will take the opportunity to give inspiring speeches about how they are fulfilling their personal dream of space and hope that countless others can now follow. After that, there’s not much left to do other than wait for Elon Musk to try to raise the stake even further. What will it be? An inaugural flight around the moon with the # dearMoon project crew?
Or maybe the Starship’s maiden flight to Mars? It’s hard to say, and the possibilities are as numerous as they are profound. Musk, the ball is yours! While we wait, watch the full live stream courtesy of Virgin Galactic:
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