Richard Branson Reaches Space on Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity


WIRED 11 July, 2021 - 11:37am 34 views

Where did Virgin Galactic take off from?

Virgin Galactic's flights launch from Spaceport America, along a desolate stretch of desert in New Mexico. The company's SpaceShipTwo Unity craft is designed to take off on a conventional runway while attached to the underbelly of a carrier ship known as WhiteKnightTwo. NBC NewsVirgin Galactic's rocket reaches space with Richard Branson on board

What time does Branson take off?

Branson's 90-minute trip began in dramatic fashion as Virgin's twin-fuselage carrier jet — with the VSS Unity rocket-powered spaceplane bolted under its wing — lifted away from the company's Spaceport America launch site near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, at 8:40 a.m. local time (10:40 a.m. EDT). CBS NewsRichard Branson and Virgin Galactic complete successful space flight

How high will Virgin Galactic fly?

Virgin Galactic will launch Unity to an altitude above 50 miles (80 km), which NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. military classify as space. Space.comVirgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity 22 launch with Richard Branson: Here's when to watch and what to know.

When does Bezos go to space?

Jeff Bezos announced last month that he would go to space on July 20, along with his brother and two other people, on his company's New Shepard. One of those passengers will be Wally Funk. NPRRichard Branson Goes To Space On A Virgin Galactic Flight

The sky over the Spaceport American in Las Cruces, New Mexico, was afire with lightning last night. The storm was sufficiently fierce to postpone Virgin Galactic’s planned rollout of its twin airships, mothership Eve and a space vehicle called VSS Unity, from their hangar. The delay meant that lift-off for today’s planned flight, which would send a crew on Unity 50 miles above Earth, would be pushed back 90 minutes.

But no matter—Richard Branson still had plenty of time to beat Jeff Bezos into outer space.

And he did it. At 9:25 am MT, about 45 minutes after taking off from the spaceport at the delayed time, the spaceship component of the duo, Unity, was ready to be freed from Eve. Branson and five of his colleagues—two pilots, three other mission specialists—were on board. Branson awaited the ignition of the rocket engine with a smile frozen on his face. Then fire belched from the vehicle and in just under two minutes, it reached altitude. Branson was at the edge of space, around 80 kilometers up. Fifteen minutes later, Branson and his crew were back on Earth, ready to talk about how Virgin Galactic would be offering an identical experience to anyone willing to pay $250,000 or so. Hundreds are already on the waiting list.

Branson is the king of spectacle, so it’s not surprising that the launch had a festival feel to it. In the hours before the launch, Branson’s Twitter feed, along with those of his colleagues, was stuffed with slick videos intended to portray a hero’s journey. We saw him arriving at the spaceport on a bicycle—pedaled across the Atlantic?—greeting his crewmates, who were already decked out in their custom-designed Under Armour suits. “You’re late!” they told him. “Suit up!”

A longer version of the video showed them signing into a log book, with Branson identifying himself as Astronaut 001. The Virgin Galactic founder posted a photo of a welcome observer to the launch—Elon Musk. As Branson walked to the launch pad, he was surrounded by cheering spectators; he paused his fist-bumping stroll to sign some souvenirs offered by little children. The live feed itself was co-hosted by Stephen Colbert. Waiting in the wings was Khalid, who had written a song, “New Normal,” to be unveiled upon the end of the ride.

The only disappointment was that the King of Media’s live feed in the capsule failed during the two minutes of actual space travel. Spectators were denied a view of Branson and crewmates spinning in weightless bliss. (The closest we got was about three seconds of heavily pixelated limbs waving around.) Nor did we hear from the British entrepreneur during his time freed from gravity. “We’ll be sure to capture his magical words and share them with the world when available,” said one of Virgin commentators on the live feed.

Lurking behind today’s Virgin Galactic flight is some not-so-warm-and-fuzzy competition between billionaires. After a successful May crewed test flight, Virgin Galactic’s plan was to have three more test flights this year with Branson on the second of these. But after Bezos announced that he would be among the passengers on Blue Origin’s first crewed flight, Branson hastily changed the Virgin timetable. Unity would head back into flight on July 11, with the quickest turnaround the company has pulled off. And Branson would be on board, along with a cabin-full of his employees. In addition to the personal risk, there was a financial one: Virgin Galactic became a public company in late 2019 by merging with an existing firm on the stock exchange, and an unsuccessful flight would screw the pooch, in terms of share price.

Caution seemed reasonable; in 2014, a test flight ended in disaster when the SpaceShipTwo rocket vehicle came apart soon after the rockets fired. One pilot died and another was seriously injured. Branson persisted, and funded a second space vehicle, dubbed Unity. Each of today’s crew of six was assigned a task, including Branson, whose job would be assessing the experience of future space tourists on the flight—because who could be more impartial in evaluating the experience than the person who has most to gain from people lining up to buy tickets for future flights?

Virgin’s literal path to space is unique. Bezos’ Blue Origin uses traditional means of sending people to space. That means having the travelers climb seven flights of steps to a capsule sitting on top of a giant rocket booster and literally blasting off to the skies. Virgin Galactic uses a technology originally developed by a company owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and built by a firm called Scaled Composites, strapping a rocket-powered vehicle underneath a much larger double-fuselage airplane.

The crew drives up to the ship in SUVs and climbs about six steps on a tiny metal staircase to the hatch. When the bound vehicles reach an altitude of around 45,000 feet, Eve drops its cargo. Once clear of the mothership, Unity’s pilots fire the rockets. The flight tops off about 55 miles above Earth, just high enough to sample weightlessness. Whether or not it qualifies as “outer space” depends on whose definition you accept: The Department of Defense won’t consider you an astronaut unless you cross the Kármán line of 100 kilometers, which is around 62 miles. The Federal Aviation Administration is more lenient, granting you astronaut wings at 50 miles, which we may as well call The Branson Line.

Indeed, luck was with Branson today. True, Virgin Galactic’s claims that this flight is a groundbreaking one for commercial space is somewhat overblown. Russia was first to charge astronauts for rides into space. The first private crewed space launch came with Virgin’s predecessor, Scaled Composites. (Branson paid to brand it with the Virgin logo and later bought Allen’s assets.) SpaceX was the first private company to send astronauts into orbit. Blue Origin will be the first private company to charge a private passenger.

But give Branson this: Virgin Galactic is the first space tourism company to send its billionaire owner into space, at least space as defined by the FAA. Branson will forever have that bragging right. And one expects he will exercise it endlessly.

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Read full article at WIRED

Richard Branson may beat Bezos and Musk in billionaire space race

CBC News: The National 11 July, 2021 - 01:20pm

Richard Branson space flight beats out Jeff Bezos. But all of humanity loses.

NBC News 11 July, 2021 - 01:20pm

The space race used to be between superpowers, but now it’s between the super-rich and everyone else. Last month, Jeff Bezos announced that soon after leaving behind the role of CEO of Amazon, he’d be leaving Earth, too.

Beware that while the risks of staying on Earth grow every day, those of going into space are too great for insurance companies to cover.

Bezos is taking a seat on his own space shuttle, New Shepard, on July 20. He has certainly earned it, in the sense that he has paid for it by starting the aerospace company, Blue Origin, that will bring him into outer space. Though he’s set to achieve his boyhood dream, he won’t be the first billionaire who has funded his own launch of a few fleeting moments in space.

Bezos’ boast was a siren song to fellow billionaires, and soon after going public with his plan in June, Richard Branson stepped in to say that more than a week before Bezos, he would be boarding his own Virgin Galactic VSS Unity for a spaceflight. On Sunday, he indeed became the first billionaire to win the space race. At this point, it would not be outside the realm of Elon Musk stunts to tweet that he’s also aboard his SpaceX Dragon.

For anyone else who’s had enough of everything they can see on Earth and can afford to leave it behind, space tourism has finally arrived. For an astronomical price, you will soon be able to take a suborbital space cruise with Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic. If you want to go even farther, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will have a glass-domed observation deck available for the passengers it’s shuttling to the International Space Station for an eight-day stay at $55 million a piece. Just beware that while the risks of staying on Earth grow every day, those of going into space are too great for insurance companies to cover.

No doubt there’s value to all space exploration, and the knowledge and advances that come from private companies will benefit the public. But the stratification of who gets to leave the stratosphere is not another division we need.

It was federal tax dollars that were the foundation of NASA. The collective coffers of the country put a man on the moon, and a half-billion people watched it on TV. The astronauts did not go in the stead of the rest of the planet; they were pioneers on behalf of the rest of the population.

I have not traveled to space, but I have been fortunate enough to speak several times to those who have. Their space travel wasn’t an item on a billionaire bucket list, and we’re all the better for it. In one-on-one conversations and in group discussions, a recurrent topic was the devotion they felt to the Earth and its inhabitants while they looked at them from above, and a dedication to improving life on the planet when they got back. They are now all engaged in educational efforts that relate to their time spent in space.

This unifying commitment is all the more significant given that each came from a wildly different background that leant unique meaning to their missions.

Peggy Whitson grew up on a farm in Iowa and decided to become an astronaut when she was 9 years old after seeing the moon landing on TV. She has broken many records, including being the first woman to command the space station, and for a long while she had spent more time in space than anyone else.

Mae Jemison topped her accomplishments of graduating from Cornell’s medical school and studying dance at the Ailey School by enrolling in NASA’s astronaut program after being inspired by Sally Ride and Guion Bluford. Jemison was the first African American woman in space and spent her first flight conducting biomedical experiments.

Leland Melvin was twice sidelined by the NFL for injuries, so he went to work at NASA as an engineer and ended up an astronaut. Among his many accomplishments in space was delivering a science laboratory to the International Space Station.

Speaking in the same New York Italian accent as some of my relatives, Mike Massimino told me how a summer job at NASA eventually led to him becoming an astronaut. While he helped upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, he may be best known for ordering a pizza from space.

As dissimilar and unexpected as their paths are, they all experienced something in common: a life-altering epiphany about the unity of the universe once they got to see the stars up close and a calling to change the world they returned to for the better.

It seems unlikely that the billionaires who travel to space will engage in a meaningful way with the broader population afterward, in part because they’re so far removed from other people. In fact, their privilege has put them at such odds with Earth’s inhabitants that many don’t want them to come back, epiphany-equipped or not. A petition that implores, “Do not allow Jeff Bezos to return to Earth,” has over 150,000 signatures.

While those wealthy enough to build spacecraft can certainly be as starry-eyed as the rest of us, it’s unsettling to watch them flex the power to leave the planet, particularly in such troubled times.

Chandra Steele is a journalist, working as senior features writer at, as well as a fiction writer

Richard Branson pays tribute to his late mother Eve as he takes off on historic space flight

Daily Mail 11 July, 2021 - 01:20pm

By Georgia Simcox For Mailonline

Sir Richard Branson has paid tribute to his late mother Eve as he became the second oldest man to travel into space. 

He has inaugurated the dawn of the age of space tourism by becoming the first billionaire to make it into space after the 70-year-old Virgin Galactic founder took off on a flight to the edge of Earth's atmosphere in the VSS Unity plane.

Branson is travelling on VSS Unity, which launched from mothership VMS Eve with a live stream of the event starting at 3.30pm (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico

The launch was delayed by 90 minutes due to bad weather in the area which arrived overnight which delayed the start of flight preparations. Once it reaches 50,000 feet the carrier plane releases Unity, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.  

Sir Richard Branson has paid tribute to his late mother Eve as he became the second oldest man to travel into space 

In a live stream on the company's website, Sir Richard said: 'Dear mum, you always told me to reach for the stars. Well, I took my own winding road but I always knew to follow your lead. You always pushed us to our limits. 

'When I was a child, you threw me out of the car miles from our house and urged me to find my own way home. You let me jump into a river to sink or swim. 

'You and Dad taught me and my sisters independence and loved us with fierceness and tenderness. 

'You were always an adventurer. You took glider lessons dressed as a boy, enlisted during World War Two. Toured Germany as a ballet dancer after the war. You flew treacherous routes as intrepid cabin crew for Start Up Airlines. 

Sir Richard said that his mother Eve (pictured) always 'told him to reach for the stars' and pushed her children to 'their limits' 

'You took us into the great unknown on family holidays. You treated every day as a chance to explore. 

'Before the word existed, you were always an entrepreneur. You helped make ends meet by creating your own small businesses. You showed me how to grow a company, how to treat people, how to be creative, how to balance work and play, how to live. 

'You were always a romantic. You and Dad showed Joan and me the way to build a life filled with humour and heart, hope and humility, honesty and happiness. You showed us the value of kindness, the magic of laughter, the beauty of music and the joy of family. 

'You were always my guiding light of Virgin Galactic. You share with me that the day we named our mothership the MSE was one of your happiest. 

In the emotional tribute, he said how she let him 'jump into a river to sink or swim' and threw him 'out of the car miles from their house', urging him 'to find his own way home'

Sir Richard recalled how his mother dressed as a boy to take glider lessons and enlisted during the Second World War

He added that she 'flew treacherous routes as intrepid cabin crew for Start Up Airlines'

'You always knew Eve would start my journey to space one day. Just as I always knew you would do the impossible for me. 

'Well, mum,  our mothership carries your name, will carry the next generation of dreamers into space.

'You were always a dreamer. You urge me to strive for every opportunity I saw. You told me to chase my wildest fantasies and to live life to the full. 

'Well, the brave may not live forever. But the cautious do not live at all. 

'How you lived, how you loved and how you are missed. 

'Dad always said "isn't life wonderful" and you both showed us it was. Always.' 

He said that his father always said 'isn't life wonderful', continuing that both of his parents always showed him and his siblings that it was

Pictured: The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity flies at Spaceport America, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico on July 11, 2021 before travel to the cosmos with Sir Richard Branson onboard with five other crew members

With a crowd of more than 500 watching, the plan was for the space plane to detach from the mother ship at an altitude of about eight miles, fire its rocket engine and then pierce the edge of space at about 55 miles up. 

After a few minutes of weightlessness for the crew, the space plane was supposed to glide to a runway landing. The brief, up-and-down flight was intended as a confidence-boosting plug for Virgin Galactic, which plans to start taking paying customers on joyrides next year 

Sir Richard was not supposed to fly until later this summer, but he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Bezos announced plans to ride his own rocket ship into space from Texas on July 20. More than 600 people have already made reservations for a ride into space with Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004.

The flamboyant billionaire, who was pictured cycling to the facility this morning, is the second oldest person to travel to space - after 77-year-old John Glenn in 1998.  

Spectators cheers as the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity takes off at Spaceport America this afternoon

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You could win a trip on the same Virgin Galactic space plane that flew Richard Branson to space

USA TODAY 11 July, 2021 - 11:44am

Omaze is giving away two tickets for one of Virgin Galactic's first commercial flights. Find out how you can fly to the edge of space.

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Richard Branson had a special message moments after reaching the edge of space Wochit

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson returned from his first space flight on Sunday, touching down on Earth after a quick trip to the edge of space via the VSS Unity space plane.

The spaceflight company plans to eventually sell tickets for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it's saving two seats on one of its next voyages for sweepstakes winners.  

Charity fundraising platform Omaze is giving away two tickets for one of the VSS Unity’s first commercial flights. The winner and one guest are set to be among the first everyday citizens to travel aboard a spacecraft.

You can enter through Aug. 31, and will support the nonprofit Space for Humanity, which aims to send citizen astronauts of diverse racial, economic and disciplinary backgrounds to space.  

“Richard (Branson) and Space for Humanity are pioneering in democratizing access to space, making it something not just available to the ultra-high net worth individuals or astronauts but available to all humans,” Omaze CEO and co-founder Matt Pohlson told USA TODAY. “It’s really about making it available to everybody."

Those interested can enter online at The minimum suggested donation is $10, although no donation is required to enter. Each $10 donation is equivalent to 100 entries, and there is a $300 donation cap. 

“Many talk about (space) as the next frontier of humanity,"  Pohlson said. "Our understanding space helps us understand who we are ... our human potential. We think all human beings should have access to unlock their potential.”

The sweepstakes are open to entries from around the world from those 18 and older. Virgin Galactic has yet to release information on when the flight will take off or where it will launch. 

Rachel Lyons, the executive director of Space for Humanity, believes viewing Earth from space can offer a new perspective of the planet. She and the rest of the nonprofit are working to make this experience accessible to more people. 

"We all share this planet together. And we need to take care of it and we need to take care of each other," Lyons said. "By giving people around the world access to this experience and this perspective, we can begin to shift our relationship on a collective level with each other and with our planet."

Eighty percent of the net proceeds raised through the sweepstake supports Space for Humanity. The remaining 20% goes to Omaze, a for-profit company.

Branson launched from New Mexico on Sunday aboard the VSS Unity.

The space plane cannot achieve the speeds required for orbital flight and instead aims for suborbital flights (at an altitude of 50 miles above sea level) offering passengers a brief opportunity to view the Earth from above and experience zero gravity. Passengers experience about 4 minutes of weightlessness. 

Full details of the sweepstake winners' flight have not yet been announced, but Pohlson said they will have an experience similar to Branson's. 

“You’re going with the full Virgin Galactic experience,” he said. 

Talk around civilian space travel has been picking up in recent months.

Another billionaire – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – is set to take off for space on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the 1969 moon landing by Apollo 11. Blue Origin, the aerospace company started by Bezos, auctioned off a seat on the flight for $28 million.  

Those who don’t win space flight auctions or sweepstakes can space travel – for a price.

Virgin Galactic plans to resume ticket sales for a 90-minute ride and hopes to launch full-revenue commercial flights in 2022. Approximately 600 reservations have been made for prices peaking at $250,000. 

Branson has said he doesn't expect prices to drop for another decade.

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Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic crew are safely back from space, ushering in a new era

The Washington Post 11 July, 2021 - 06:51am

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has landed back on the runway at Spaceport America

SpaceShipTwo has reached the edge of space

How Virgin Galactic was founded nearly two decades ago

The billionaire space race between Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos grows bitter

SpaceShipTwo, carried by a mothership, has lifted off

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity: not the traditional way to launch into space

Meet the crew flying Virgin Galactic today

Richard Branson, showman and daredevil, hopes to use his spaceflight to drive ticket sales

The crew has arrived at Spaceport America

Elon Musk is at Spaceport America to cheer on Richard Branson

Richard Branson’s flight with Virgin Galactic delayed because of overnight weather

Richard Branson revels in a postflight ceremony

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has landed back on the runway at Spaceport America

SpaceShipTwo has reached the edge of space

How Virgin Galactic was founded nearly two decades ago

The billionaire space race between Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos grows bitter

SpaceShipTwo, carried by a mothership, has lifted off

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity: not the traditional way to launch into space

Meet the crew flying Virgin Galactic today

Richard Branson, showman and daredevil, hopes to use his spaceflight to drive ticket sales

The crew has arrived at Spaceport America

Elon Musk is at Spaceport America to cheer on Richard Branson

Richard Branson’s flight with Virgin Galactic delayed because of overnight weather

The suborbital trip gave the British billionaire, his three crewmates and two pilots a glimpse of the Earth from more than 50 miles up and a few minutes of weightlessness before the vehicle they were traveling in, SpaceShipTwo Unity, glided back to Earth and a landing on the runway at Virgin Galactic’s facility here in the New Mexico desert.

It was SpaceShipTwo’s fourth trip to the edge of space since 2018, and Virgin Galactic, the company Branson founded in 2004, says it will soon start flying paying customers regularly on similar jaunts, opening a new era in human space exploration.

Several companies in the growing commercial space industry, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, have developed spacecraft designed to allow private citizens, and not just NASA trained military fighter pilots and scientists, to earn the title of “astronaut.” (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Virgin Galactic seemed intent on making it clear that this was not a traditional NASA launch. Instead of a stoic countdown, there was a party-like atmosphere along the tarmac, a scene as much a spectacle as a space launch that even included a musical guest, Khalid, who debuted a new song during a performance here. The company’s live broadcast of the flight was hosted by comedian and late-night host Stephen Colbert, and Musk was on hand to watch Branson and the crew take off.

Unlike traditional rockets that launch vertically, Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo Unity takes off tethered to the belly of a mother ship. On Sunday, the mother ship, known as WhiteKnightTwo, lifted off from the tarmac here shortly after 10:30 a.m. Eastern time, delayed by about 90 minutes because high winds overnight had kept the ground crew from rolling it out of the hangar. The spaceship was released at about 11:25 a.m. Eastern time, the pilots ignited the engine and the spacecraft shot almost straight up as it thundered toward space.

The flight reached its apogee at 282,000 feet — 53.41 miles — where the passengers were able to unstrap and experience weightlessness. The spacecraft then fell back to earth and a landing at 11:39 Eastern time.

On board were pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, both of whom had flown to space on previous flights. Joining Branson in the crew compartment were Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs, Colin Bennett, the company’s lead operations engineer, and Beth Moses, its chief astronaut instructor. Moses, who is married to Mike Moses, the company’s president, flew on Virgin Galactic’s second spaceflight mission, in 2019.

Branson had originally been scheduled to fly aboard a flight scheduled for later this summer or early fall. But after the company successfully made it to space in May, he grew impatient.

“I’ve been itching to go, and they said they wanted somebody to properly test the astronaut experience,” Branson said in a recent interview with The Post. “And I was damned if I was going to let anyone take that seat.”

In a press conference after the flight, he said he wasn’t nervous about the trip. “We have nearly 1,000 of the best engineers in the world” who pored over every inch of the spacecraft, he said. His only concern, he said, was the possibility of a delay. "The only thing I was worried about was some tiny little something that would get in the way, something that would stop us from getting into space.”

He called the experience “just magical…. I’m just taking it all in." And added that, “having flown to space, I can see more clearly how Virgin Galactic is the spaceline for Earth.”

By moving up his flight, he was able to beat Bezos to space by nine days. Bezos, who recently stepped down as Amazon’s CEO, is scheduled to fly a on his company’s suborbital New Shepard capsule on July 20.

Branson has repeatedly denied that he was in a race with Bezos and said in the interview that it was just “an incredible, wonderful coincidence that we’re going up in the same month.”

But when asked about a rivalry with Bezos on CNBC, he couldn’t help himself, saying “Jeff who?”

Branson’s antics elicited a strong response from Bezos’ Blue Origin. Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s CEO, issued a statement last week wishing Branson well but also pointing out that Virgin Galactic is “not flying above the Kármán line, and it’s a very different experience.” The Kármán line, at 100 km or 62 miles, is an internationally recognized threshold for where space begins. Virgin Galactic flies to just over 50 miles, the altitude at which the Federal Aviation Administration will award crew members astronaut wings.

On Saturday, however, Bezos wished Branson luck in a post on Instagram. “Wishing you and the whole team a successful and safe flight tomorrow,” Bezos wrote. “Best of luck!”

Branson would now be eligible for his wings, fulfilling a dream he has had since he founded Virgin Galactic, lured by the romance of space travel and the possibility of commercializing an endeavor that had been monopolized by governments.

One of the first major steps on that path was the 2004 Ansari X Prize, a $10 million competition to put a commercial vehicle into space for the first time. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft had funded an effort, led by Burt Rutan, the legendary aircraft designer, to build what was called SpaceShipOne. Branson fell in love with the ship, purchased the rights to the technology and was able to slap a Virgin logo on the spacecraft as it won the prize.

Watching the spacecraft take off, Branson turned to Allen and said, according to Allen’s memoir, “Paul, isn’t this better than the best sex you ever had?”

Branson then turned his attention to creating the “world’s first commercial spaceline” and vowed that within a matter of years passengers would soon be flying to space on a regular basis.

Virgin Galactic set off to build SpaceShipTwo, which would be far larger and more powerful vehicle than its predecessor. But the program quickly ran into technical problems. And in 2014, it suffered an accident midflight that killed one of the pilots, Michael Alsbury, and severely injured the other, Peter Siebold, who parachuted to the ground. Branson considered giving up on his quest, but ultimately decided that the risk was worth it and carried on, vowing to learn from the accident and build a safer and more robust spaceship.

The company finally made it to space in December 2018, and again a few weeks later, in early 2019. It then moved its operations from Mojave, Calif., to New Mexico’s Spaceport America, the gleaming $220 million facility funded by taxpayers. In 2019, the company announced it would go public through a merger with a New York investment firm and hired a new CEO and leadership team.

Then, in May, it reached space for the third time in a flight with two pilots, and, after consulting with the company’s engineers, Branson decided that he would be on the next flight.

The flight comes amid a flurry of spaceflight activity that taken together amounts to a renaissance for human exploration.

Just over a year ago, no one had flown to space from U.S. soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, a long, ignominious drought that ended when Elon Musk’s SpaceX flew a pair of NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, in a test flight to the International Space Station.

Since then, SpaceX has flown two more human spaceflight missions. Boeing, which is also under contract from NASA to transport the agency’s astronauts to and from the station, hopes to fly people in the months to come.

SpaceX plans to fly a mission dubbed Inspiration4 in September. Financed by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, a group of four civilians would spend three days or so orbiting the Earth in SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. Axiom Space, a firm based in Houston, is arranging trips for very wealthy groups of people to spend a week on the space station. A voyage that costs some $55 million.

In addition to the flight on July 20, Bezos’ Blue Origin has two more flights planned for this year and more than half a dozen next year.

In all, that would culminate to an era of spaceflight like the barnstormers in the early days of aviation. But whether it is successful depends on whether the industry can continue to fly people reliably and safely.

After the flight, Branson was greeted by his three-year-old granddaughter, who said, “Papa gone to the moon. Papa gone to the moon.”

Branson let it slide. “I’m not going to disillusion her,” he said.

With those words, Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, pinned astronaut wings to Richard Branson’s flight suit Sunday shortly after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo landed safely back at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Speaking to the crowd, Branson said, “the whole thing was just magical…. I’m just taking it all in.”

He said his goal when he founded the company in 2004 was to “turn the dream of space travel into a reality for my grandchildren” and for future generations. And he added that “having flown to space I can see more clearly how Virgin Galactic is the spaceline for Earth.”

Virgin Orbit hopes to be a disruptive force in the launch market by offering a small, 70-foot long, two-stage rocket suited to take advantage of satellite technology that is drastically shrinking in size and lowering costs. Unlike traditional rockets that blast off vertically from launchpads, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket is air launched — carried aloft by a Boeing 747, then released midair to fires its engine and shoot into orbit.

The rocket is able to hoist payloads of a few hundred pounds, which could carry satellites that would range in size from a big refrigerator to a toaster oven, the company has said.

So far, it has had two successful launches, including one last month, when it delivered seven customer satellites to their intended orbit. In all, the company has launched 17, and is “looking forward to growing that number tremendously as we push to ramp up our flight cadence in the coming months,” Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s CEO, said in a statement.

The company is pursuing a number of customers, but one in particular, the Pentagon, has been paying particularly close attention. The ability to quickly put up a satellite is a capability U.S. national security agencies have long sought after, and being able to use a 747 that only needs a runway to take off is particularly attractive, officials have said.

After Virgin Orbit’s first launch, Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, the Space Force’s chief of space operations, wrote on Twitter: “Congratulations to the Virgin Orbit Team!”

A crowd gathered along the tarmac cheered when they saw the shiny, white spaceplane come back after what appears to be a successful mission. In addition to Branson, Virgin Galactic employees Sirisha Bandla, Colin Bennett and Beth Moses were on board the test flight, which was piloted by Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci.

The company hopes the mission will pave the way for future flights of paying customers. It has some 600 people who have put down significant deposits and are waiting to fly. It also is expected to soon reopen sales for tickets, which had cost $250,000 but are now expected to be more expensive, perhaps as much as $500,000.

If all goes according to plan, it should fly past 50 miles high, then glide back to Earth for a landing on the runway at Spaceport America. Total flight time, from release to landing, is estimated to be 15 minutes.

At the time, Richard Branson was fascinated with the idea of private space travel and was thinking of starting a space company of his own. And when he saw SpaceShipOne, the vehicle that legendary aviation designer Burt Rutan developed for Allen, he was smitten.

Allen was growing nervous about the dangers of human spaceflight and agreed to sell Branson the rights to the technology. Branson quickly slapped a Virgin logo on the spacecraft and set out to make it more robust. SpaceShipOne, which hangs in the National Air and Space Museum, was a relatively small and nimble spaceplane that flew with a single pilot each time it went to space.

But Branson had something bigger and more ambitious in mind — creating the world’s first “commercial spaceline,” as he called it. And Virgin Galactic set out to build a larger craft capable of flying six passengers with two pilots. For now, however, the company is flying just four people in addition to the pilots. And it flies past 50 miles, not 62.

SpaceShipTwo, as it is called, has reached that 50-mile altitude three times before today’s flight, allowing Branson to fly and fulfill the dream he had nearly 20 years ago.

His company Blue Origin announced that he would join the company’s first human spaceflight mission, scheduled for July 20. The date was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. And Bezos invited his brother, Mark, to join him. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Branson was not about to be outdone, however. While he was initially scheduled to go on a later flight, he jumped ahead and decided to join the flight scheduled to fly Sunday, which is nine days before Bezos’ flight. He has denied that he and Bezos are in a race, telling The Post recently that it was “just an incredible, wonderful coincidence that we’re going up in the same month.”

But when asked about the rivalry on CNBC, Branson couldn’t help himself and said, “Jeff who?”

Blue Origin, normally quiet and secretive, has punched back, releasing a chart comparing a flight in its New Shepard capsule to the Virgin Galactic experience. In it, Blue Origin points out that its capsule flies above the Kármán line, an internationally recognized boundary for space at 100 kilometers or around 62 miles high. Virgin Galactic, by contrast, flies just above 50 miles, an altitude at which the Federal Aviation Administration issues astronaut wings for crew members.

Blue Origin also pointed out that its windows are bigger, that it launches with a more traditional rocket and capsule instead of an air-launch via a spaceplane and has an emergency escape system. It also charges that Virgin Galactic’s rocket engine is worse for the environment.

Nicola Pecile, a test pilot for Virgin Galactic, on Twitter called the dispute about which altitude is more worthy “so childish that it is getting really embarrassing to watch.” He noted that flying above 100,000 feet, about 18 miles, “is already so complicated that anyone doing so should deserve a special recognition.”

He added that if there had ever been a competition between the two companies, it ended in December 2018 when Virgin Galactic first flew to space. He added that Blue Origin “has flown only mannequins so far.”

The atmosphere gradually gets less and less dense, gravity’s pull eventually weakens, and the debate over where space begins has churned for decades.

It’s getting another look now as a pair of companies, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin compete to fly paying customers to the edge of space and back on suborbital trajectories. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Blue Origin touts that it flies past the Karman line, named for Theodore Von Karman, a Hungarian-American engineer and scientist who studied aeronautics and astronautics. That boundary is at 100 kilometers, or 62 miles.

Blue Origin chose that altitude, Bezos has said, “because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not.”

Blue Origin likes to point out that Virgin Galactic doesn’t quite reach that altitude, even though that was its original intent. But as its spacecraft got heavier, Virgin Galactic decided it would fly four passengers, not six, as originally intended, and it would fly only past 50 miles, instead of 62.

But the Federal Aviation Administration recognizes 50 miles high as space and awards astronaut wings to people who’ve reached that altitude. That includes Virgin Galactic’s pilots, as well as the pilots from the Air Force and NASA who flew the X-15 jet to that altitude during the 1950s.

The 50-mile, 80-kilometer threshold qualifies as space for Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astrophysicist, as well. In a paper, he argued that “practical evidence suggests that the 80 km line is a reasonable boundary.”

Satellites can survive for days and weeks in orbit at that altitude. But once the low point of the orbit drops below that threshold a satellite would fall back into the atmosphere and burn up. “The satellite does not survive more than one orbit,” he wrote.

The spaceplane is tethered to the belly of a mother ship, which will “air launch” the vehicle to space.

Virgin Galactic takes a different approach. Instead of launching vertically from a pad, it air-launches its vehicle. The spacecraft, known as SpaceShipTwo Unity, is tethered to the belly of a twin fuselage airplane that carries it aloft to about 45,000 feet. There, the spaceship is released, the pilots fire its engines and steer it on an almost perfectly vertical trajectory into the sky.

To reorient itself for reentry, the spacecraft has what is known as a “feather” — the wings of the spacecraft essentially fold up and, as the company says on its website, “provides stability during re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.”

“During this phase of spaceflight the vehicle acts like a shuttlecock or birdie, orienting the ship to the proper re-entry attitude,” Virgin Galactic says. “This orientation creates high drag, which slows SpaceShipTwo down quickly while high in the atmosphere. This also allows the thermal loads generated from re-entering the atmosphere to spread evenly over the surface area of the vehicle rather than concentrating on a few small points.”

Once back into the atmosphere, the wings are lowered back into position, and the pilots glide the spaceplane for a touchdown on the runway.

SpaceShipTwo is not the only vehicle to be air-launched from a mother ship to an altitude of more than 50 miles. The X-15, operated by the U.S. Air Force and NASA, flew during test flights in the 1960s. But it didn’t have a cabin as modern as SpaceShipTwo, with plenty of windows for Earth gazing.

Dave Mackay, the chief pilot, is from Scotland and has flown to space twice previously. He served in the Royal Air Force for 16 years and has flown 140 different types of aircraft. After the military, he flew for Virgin Atlantic, Branson’s commercial airline, and then joined Virgin Galactic.

Michael “Sooch” Masucci is the flight’s co-pilot. He’s a former Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew on Virgin Galactic’s second spaceflight mission.

In the cabin with Branson will be Beth Moses, whose Virgin Galactic job is chief astronaut instructor. She flew with Masucci on the February 2019 flight. In an interview with The Post after her flight, she said, “It blows your mind. We flew on a perfectly clear day. A lot of snow on the mountain tops. Earth was wearing her diamonds that day.”

When the company starts flying paying customers, Moses’ job will be to prepare them for the experience. She is married to Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic’s president.

Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research operations, is a graduate of Purdue University who previously worked at the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an association that promotes the commercial space industry. While flying, she said she would be assessing what it would be like for researchers and scientists to perform their experiments in space.

“This is an incredible opportunity to get people from different backgrounds, different geographies, different communities into space,” she said in a video on Twitter.

The sixth person aboard the flight will be Colin Bennett, Virgin Galactic’s lead operations engineer. His task is to evaluate procedures in the crew cabin during the spaceplane’s powered ascent through the atmosphere as well as when the crew is in a weightless environment.

“Anyone who has lived with large rocket engines understands that their awesome power is produced by machinery churning away at very high temperatures, pressures and velocities,” Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut wrote in a Washington Post op-ed days after space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing all seven on board.

Despite the risks, he wrote that “we tend to pooh-pooh danger, and if you go into the VIP stands before a space launch there is a carefree, holiday atmosphere, like being at the company picnic. Ride one of the beasts and you get a different perspective.”

The spaceplane that Richard Branson is set to fly is nothing like the beast Collins flew with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. The Saturn V moon rocket was far more powerful than the spaceplane that will barely get Branson to the edge of space. But it is dangerous nonetheless, despite the festive atmosphere Branson is building at Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic’s facility in the New Mexico desert.

Stephen Colbert, the late-night TV show host and space fan, is anchoring Virgin Galactic’s live broadcast of the flight. The musician Khalid will be at Spaceport America, and will release his new single “New Normal” after the launch. Celebrity FORs (Friends of Richard) are expected to be on hand as well, ready to party and celebrate a triumph. Elon Musk is there.

Branson, the showman CEO who has turned death-defying exploits into a form of self-promotion and marketing, plans to use his flight to launch Virgin Galactic’s ticket sales. After being dormant for some time, the company plans to reopen sales — with prices that could be an estimated $500,000.

That is, as long as Sunday’s flight is completed safely.

“You’re late, come on, get suited up,” says Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor. They are expected to board SpaceShipTwoUnity a little before 10 a.m. Eastern time.

“Big day ahead. Great to start the morning with a friend. Feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready,” he said in the accompanying text.

Branson is scheduled to fly to space on Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft later Sunday morning.

On Twitter Saturday, Musk wrote to Branson: “Will see you there to wish you the best.”

Branson responded by saying, “Thanks for being so typically supportive and such a good friend, Elon. Great to be opening up space for all — safe travels and see you at Spaceport America!”

Jeff Bezos, another of the billionaire “space barons,” also said he hoped Branson had a good launch, writing on Instagram: “Wishing you and the whole team a successful and safe flight tomorrow. Best of luck!” Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, is scheduled to fly to space on Blue Origin’s New Shepard space capsule July 20 and is not expected to be present to witness Branson’s trip.

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