It was one short trip for a man – 68 minutes, to be precise, including just four minutes of weightlessness.
But after returning to Earth on Sunday morning as part of the first group of passengers to fly aboard his company’s rocket-powered space plane, Sir Richard Branson was emphatic about the giant leap his journey represents for those with the desire and the means to follow.
“We’re here to make space more accessible to all,” said the entrepreneur and chief executive of Virgin Galactic, the space-tourism company that aims to send paying customers on suborbital flights starting next year.
During a ceremony after the landing at the New Mexico facility that serves as the company’s base of operations, Sir Richard said he began the venture 17 years ago with the goal of turning the dream of spaceflight into a reality for “many people who are alive today.”
He added that the experience – which included seeing the sky turn from brilliant blue to inky black and then unbuckling from his seat and floating about the cabin while looking down on the Earth far below – “was just magical.”
The event, including the entire flight of the Unity22 spacecraft, was livestreamed over the internet and widely televised. Equal parts adventure and advertisement, the occasion managed to capture the celebration of a human and technical achievement while providing future passengers with a vivid sense of what they will get when they reserve a ticket, currently priced at US$250,000 per customer.
Later in the ceremony, former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who achieved space celebrity status by playing guitar and tweeting about his experiences aboard the International Space Station in 2013, pinned “astronaut wings” on Sir Richard and his three fellow passengers, all of whom are employed with the company.
Their voyage began at 8:40 a.m. local time, when the Unity22 was taken to an altitude of about 14 kilometres by its carrier plane and released. Once clear of the carrier, the craft then rocketed up to 85 kilometres – a transition point in the atmosphere that is defined by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and NASA as the point where space begins. It then plunged back to Earth, landing like a glider.
While the ship, with a two-person crew, has reached the same milestone three times before, this is the first time it has done so with a full complement of four passengers aboard.
The flight allows Sir Richard to claim victory in a billionaire’s battle to be the first person to be flown into space by his own company – with the caveat that other organizations consider an altitude of 100 kilometres to be the correct boundary. Last week, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and CEO of the space company Blue Origin, announced he will attempt to reach that threshold with the first crewed flight of his company’s capsule set for July 20.
Robert Thirsk, a physician and engineer who became the first Canadian astronaut to fly a long-duration space mission in 2009 said that, bragging rights aside, both companies are making small but important steps toward the longer-term future of privately financed spaceflight. He compared their efforts to the beginnings of the transcontinental railways that eventually opened up the West.
“The transition in the space program from government-run to private-industry programs is picking up speed, at least for suborbital and low-orbit flights,” he added. “But the development of space will not advance in a big way until we can fly hundreds of people and tons of cargo to space each year.”
The trend also represents the most concrete attempts to date to monetize an aspect of spaceflight that emerged as a side effect of the original space race that took place from the late 1950s to the early 1970s between the United States and the Soviet Union.
At the time, space was chiefly recognized to be important for political, military and scientific reasons. Only after astronauts began describing the life-changing perception of seeing Earth from orbit and the feeling of floating in a microgravity environment did the allure and potential value of the spaceflight as a human experience become apparent.
“I suspect that many [would-be] space tourists have had a childhood dream of flying in space,” Dr. Thirsk said. “Fulfilment of this dream might be the biggest motivator.”
Marc Boucher, editor-in-chief of SpaceQ, an online publication that follows the space industry, said the opportunities opened up by commercial suborbital flights are of interest to scientists, universities and government organizations who are looking for competitively priced ways to conduct suborbital research. That includes the Canadian Space Agency, which signed a memorandum of understanding with Virgin Galactic last November.
“They see Canada as a market, and not just for the tourism side of it,” Mr. Boucher said of the company’s aims.
What remains to be seen is whether Virgin Galactic can sustain interest in its offering and keep itself viable in the long term. The company has faced challenges along they way, including a crash during a test flight in 2014 that resulted in the death of a co-pilot.
Its odds of success may have a gained a big boost – or perhaps even achieved escape velocity – from Sunday’s spectacle and the enthusiastic reactions of Sir Richard and his fellow passengers.
Recounting his own impressions of seeing Earth from space, Mr. Hadfield said the company was poised to make that view available to many more eyes, starting with those who flew on Sunday.
“They now have that inside of them,” he said.
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