(NEW YORK) — Billionaire Sir Richard Branson launched to the edge of space Sunday in the first fully crewed flight from his private space tourism firm Virgin Galactic.
The so-called Unity 22 mission lifted off from New Mexico about 10:38 a.m. Eastern Time attached to its “mothership” aircraft VMS Eve and just after 11 a.m. reached an altitude of 46,000 feet, which is higher than commercial airlines fly.
Branson, 70, is serving as a mission specialist on the flight, the fourth crewed spaceflight for Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft. Unity was launched from the Eve mothership at an altitude of 50,000 feet and live stream video showed it shooting into space. Within 30 seconds the spacecraft reached mach 2 speed and a few seconds later hit mach 3 at an altitude of weightlessness.
Onboard video showed Branson and the three other astronauts smiling as a they looked out the windows of the spacecraft.
At around 11:40 a.m. ET the spacecraft touched back down on Earth.
Latest upates: Virgin Galatic launch
As of 10:30 AM ET, the liftoff was running 10 minutes late.
At 10:38 AM ET, Virgin Galactic has started down the runway.
On Sunday morning, Branson tweeted that he was “feeling good, feeling excited” and ready for this morning’s launch, along with a picture of himself with SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
Big day ahead. Great to start the morning with a friend. Feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready.
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 11, 2021
The billionaire rode his bike Sunday morning to the launch area, Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The crew consists of fellow Virgin Galactic staff: Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennet, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.
Pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci will fly the spaceship, with C.J. Sturckow and Kelly Latimer flying the aircraft from which the spaceship will dispatch.
Branson’s role is to evaluate the private astronaut experience to prepare for future customers, which Virgin Galactic expects to do beginning in 2022.
‘Space belongs to all of us’: Branson
Virgin Galactic has taken heat from critics, including the Twitter account of competitor Blue Origin, for stretching the definition of “space” as its flights do not go above the Karman line (62 miles above Earth) that is defined by many — but not all — as the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.
“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” Branson said in a statement earlier this month announcing his spaceflight. “After 17 years of research, engineering and innovation, the new commercial space industry is poised to open the universe to humankind and change the world for good.”
Branson’s spaceflight comes just nine days ahead of when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said he will launch into space via his own firm, Blue Origin.
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