Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson touches edge of space in historic first flight

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CNET 11 July, 2021 - 11:00pm 27 views

Why is Branson going to space?

Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic crew go to the edge of space and back. In 2004, British billionaire Richard Branson proclaimed he would fly into space on his company's spaceship in just three years to kick off what he hoped would become a routine travel experience, drinks and all. Los Angeles TimesBranson, Virgin Galactic crew go to edge of space and back

Where does Virgin Galactic launch 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 edge of space with Richard Branson on board

What time does Branson launch today?

Branson's 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

When is Virgin Galactic first commercial flight?

On July 11, Virgin Galactic made a giant leap toward commercial suborbital spaceflight. The company launched its first fully crewed flight of its SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity with a special passenger on board: the company's billionaire founder Richard Branson. Space.comVirgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity 22 launch with Richard Branson. See video and photos of the flight.

British billionaire Richard Branson completed his latest, and arguably greatest, adventure Sunday with a brief flight to the edge of space aboard his Virgin Galactic space plane. The flight marks not only Branson's first trip to space, but the first time Virgin has flown a full crew cabin as well.

Hundreds of invited guests and members of the media watched from the desert floor below at New Mexico's Spaceport America as the double contrail drawn across the sky by carrier aircraft VMS Eve was suddenly overshadowed by a third white plume emanating from SpaceShipTwo Unity's rocket engine. The pair lifted off together around 8:40 a.m. MT (7:40 a.m. PT) and 45 minutes later Unity detached from Eve and fired its motor for just under a minute to reach speeds in excess of Mach 3.

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity and mothership separate as they fly way above Spaceport America, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico on Sunday. 

Branson called it the "experience of a lifetime" in a staticky radio transmission from Unity as it began to glide back to Earth. The craft then returned for a picture-perfect landing near the same spot VMS Eve launched from almost exactly an hour earlier. "Welcome to the dawn of a new space age," the 70-year-old Branson said later from the tarmac of Spaceport America. 

VMS Eve is named for Branson's mother, Eve, who died due to COVID-19 complications in January.

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Unity made it to an estimated altitude of about 53 miles (86 kilometers) above the surface of the Earth. Some will quibble that this is lower than the commonly accepted definition of space, which begins at a nice, even 100 kilometers (62 miles). However, the US military and NASA set the dividing line at 50 miles up (80 kilometers), so it's all clearly a little subjective. And for the purposes of space tourism, you get to experience weightlessness and look down on our home planet set against the black void of space from either altitude.

Before taking off, Branson said he would be "looking back at our beautiful Earth and taking it all in and realizing that only 500 other people [actually it's 570, as of Saturday] have done this."

Thread: we’re counting down the days to Sunday’s spaceflight! We asked the #Unity22 crew to answer a few of your questions! pic.twitter.com/5zmp6XhdKm

Also on the flight was Virgin's chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, the only person to have previously ridden in SpaceShipTwo's passenger cabin, in 2019. The company's lead operations engineer Colin Bennett was on board along with Sirisha Bandla, vice president for government affairs. Bandla tended a research experiment from the University of Florida involving plant biology's adaptation to microgravity.

"The VG flights offer, for the first time, the ability to actively monitor experiments during launch and the initial entry into space. This ability to study biology that experiences launch and then microgravity is, perhaps surprisingly, a radical new development," Rob Ferl, principal investigator for the experiment and a professor of horticultural sciences, said in a statement. "Previously all experiments had to wait until the spaceship was in orbit before the experiment could be monitored."

Welcome Sirisha Bandla, Colin Bennett, and Beth Moses — our expert crew members joining @richardbranson on our #Unity22 test flight. Watch LIVE this Sunday at https://t.co/5UalYT7Hjb. @SirishaBandla @VGChiefTrainer pic.twitter.com/F4ZrGnH3vo

The two Virgin Galactic pilots at the controls of Unity were Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, with former NASA astronaut CJ Sturckow and former NASA research pilot Kelly Latimer flying VMS Eve.

Richard Branson announced Virgin Galactic would give away two seats on an upcoming flight. 

Branson has always been an adventurer and thrill seeker. His many adventure exploits include long-distance hot air balloon and trans-Atlantic sailing voyages. He is the oldest person to kite surf across the English Channel.

Once back on solid ground Branson announced that Virgin would be giving away two seats on an upcoming flight through an Omaze contest that also encourages donations to benefit the nonprofit Space for Humanity, which says its goal is "democratizing space and developing solutions to world problems through the increasing of human awareness."

You can rewatch the livestream of Virgin Galactic's flight below.

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Read full article at CNET

Highlights From Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Flight

The New York Times 12 July, 2021 - 01:06am

It has been a very long wait for Mr. Branson, the irreverent, 70-year-old British billionaire who leads a galaxy of Virgin companies. In 2004, he founded Virgin Galactic to provide adventurous tourists with rides on rocket-powered planes to the edge of space and back.

At the time, he thought commercial service would begin in two to three years. Instead, close to 17 years have passed. Virgin Galactic says it still has three more test flights to conduct, including the one on Sunday, before it can be ready for paying passengers.

Cars drove Mr. Branson and his crewmates to the plane on Sunday, and the flight took off on Sunday morning around 10:40 a.m. Eastern time from Spaceport America in New Mexico, about 180 miles south of Albuquerque.

The space plane separated from the carrier ship around 11:25 a.m. and ignited its engine for about 60 seconds, carrying Mr. Branson and the crew into space. Video footage from the live stream showed him and the crew experiencing weightlessness.

Minutes later, the plane began its return to Earth in a glide, and soon landed safely on the spaceport’s runway. Mr. Branson, speaking into a camera in the plane’s cabin during the glide, called it “an experience of a lifetime.”

More than an hour later, a giddy Mr. Branson took a stage with his fellow crewmates.

“The whole thing was magical,” he said.

Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut whose performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” from the space station went viral some years ago, then pinned wings on the crewmates’ flight suits that officially designate them as astronauts.

To get off the ground, Unity was carried by a larger plane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet. There, Unity was released, and the rocket plane’s motor ignited. The acceleration made people on board feel a force up to 3.5 times their normal weight on the way to an altitude of more than 50 miles.

At the top of the arc, those on board were able to see the blackness of space as well as the curve of Earth from the plane’s windows. They also got out of their seats and experienced about four minutes of apparent weightlessness. Fifty miles up, Earth’s downward gravitational pull is essentially just as strong as it is on the ground; rather, the passengers were falling at the same pace as the plane around them.

The two tail booms at the back of the space plane then rotated up to a “feathered” configuration that created more drag and stability, allowing the plane to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere more gently. This configuration SpaceShipTwo like a badminton shuttlecock, which always falls with the pointy side oriented down, than a plane.

Still, the forces felt by the passengers on the way down were greater than on the way up, reaching six times the force of gravity.

Once the plane was back in the atmosphere, the tail booms rotated back down, and the plane glided to a landing.

In addition to Mr. Branson, three Virgin Galactic employees joined the flight to evaluate how the experience will be for future paying customers. They were Beth Moses, the chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.

On Sunday’s flight, Ms. Bandla was to conduct an experiment from the University of Florida that looks at how plants react to the changing conditions — particularly the swings in gravity — during the flight, part of research that could aid growing food on future long-duration space missions.

Richard Branson combined private spaceflight with show business on Sunday as he completed his highly-anticipated Virgin Galactic flight high above the New Mexico desert. He enlisted “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert to introduce segments of a live streamed production, which was delayed around 90 minutes by the weather.

Mr. Colbert played up a humorous rivalry he has cultivated with the entrepreneur on his talk shows over the years, and joked about some of Mr. Branson’s failed business ventures, like Virgin Cola.

“Seriously, he lost money selling sugar water,” Mr. Colbert quipped. “All aboard.”

Later in the production, the Grammy-winning artist Khalid gave a performance in front of a small crowd on an outdoor stage at Spaceport America, which featured the release of his new song, “New Normal.” The musician, appearing in a sequined jacket as machines sprayed mist on a stage, performed three songs.

“Look how far we’ve came just as humanity,” he said during the live steam.

Around two hours before lifting off, Mr. Branson shared a photo of himself with a shoeless Elon Musk, a billionaire rival in the private conquest of space.

“Great to start the morning with a friend,” Mr. Branson said on Twitter.

Even Mr. Branson’s arrival at Spaceport America wasn’t lacking for showmanship. Flanked by two white Range Rovers, the British mogul pedaled to the site at daybreak on a bicycle, a video posted by Mr. Branson showed. Once there, other members of the flight’s crew greeted him and joked that he was late.

In England, where he was knighted by Prince Charles in 2000, the spotlight did not entirely belong to Mr. Branson, however. Mr. Branson’s space odyssey coincided with the men’s tennis final at Wimbledon on Sunday — historically billed for U.S. television audiences as “breakfast at Wimbledon.”

The flight also came just hours before England was set to take on Italy in the soccer finals of Euro 2020, which has drawn the collective attention of many people in Britain. Some on social media suggested that Mr. Branson’s timing was less than ideal.

The live stream production was not without its hiccups. The show’s hosts tried to interview Mr. Branson when the plane reached space, but the audio feed wasn’t working. After re-entry, many of his words were garbled as he tried to describe what it was like to visit space.

What became his Virgin business empire began with a small record shop in central London in the 1970s before Mr. Branson parlayed it into Virgin Records, the home of acts like the Sex Pistols, Peter Gabriel and more. In 1984, he co-founded what became Virgin Atlantic to challenge British Airways in the field of long-haul passenger air travel. Other Virgin-branded airlines followed.

The Virgin Group branched out into other businesses as well, including a mobile-phone carrier, a passenger railroad and a line of hotels. Not all have performed flawlessly: Both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia filed for insolvency during the pandemic last year, while few today remember his ventures into soft drinks, cosmetics or lingerie.

Virgin Galactic was announced to much fanfare in 2004 with the promise of creating a space tourism company with style. Virgin Orbit, a spinoff of that company that launches small satellites from a jumbo jet, came 13 years later. Virgin Orbit, now separate from Virgin Galactic, has carried payloads to orbit twice this year.

The space tourism company is of a piece with Mr. Branson’s penchant for highflying pursuits like skydiving and hot-air ballooning. And unlike many of the Virgin Group’s businesses that are actually minority investments or simply licensees, Virgin Galactic has been a major focus of Mr. Branson’s. He raised $1 billion for the space companies from Saudi Arabia, only to call off the deal in 2018 after the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And in a regulatory filing, the company said it had benefited from his “personal network to generate new inquiries and reservation sales, as well as referrals from existing reservation holders.”

“We’ve spent 14 years working on our space program,” Mr. Branson said in a Bloomberg Television interview in 2018. “And it’s been tough, and space is tough — it’s rocket science.” He added that he had hoped to travel on one of Virgin Galactic’s flights by the end of that year.

Virgin Galactic joined the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 after merging with a publicly traded investment fund, giving it a potent source of new funds to compete with deep-pocket competitors — and publicity, with Mr. Branson marking its trading debut at the exchange in one of the company’s flight suits.

But while Virgin Galactic has sought to keep pace with the likes of Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin, Mr. Branson has downplayed any rivalry between the two. “I know nobody will believe me when I say it, but honestly, there isn’t,” he told The Today Show earlier this week.

The rationale is that emerging space companies like Virgin Galactic need a “learning period” to try out designs and procedures and that too much regulation too soon would stifle innovation that would lead to better, more efficient designs.

Future passengers will have to sign forms acknowledging “informed consent” to the risks, similar to what you sign if you go skydiving or bungee jumping.

What the F.A.A. does regulate is ensuring safety for people not on the plane — that is, if anything does go wrong, that the risk to the “uninvolved public” on ground is minuscule.

The Virgin Galactic design already has an imperfect safety record. The company’s first space plane, the V.S.S. Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014 when the co-pilot moved a lever too early during the flight, allowing the tail booms to rotate when they should have remained rigid. The Enterprise broke apart, and the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed. The pilot, Peter Siebold, survived after parachuting out of the plane.

The controls were redesigned so that the tail booms cannot be unlocked prematurely.

In 2019, Virgin Galactic came close to another catastrophe when a new metal thermal protection film was improperly installed, covering up holes that allow air trapped inside a horizontal stabilizer — the small horizontal wing on the tail of a plane — to flow out as the craft rises into the rarefied layers of the atmosphere. Instead, the pressure of the trapped air ruptured a seal along one of the stabilizers.

The mishap was revealed earlier this year in the book “Test Gods” by Nicholas Schmidle, a staff writer at The New Yorker. The book quotes Todd Ericson, then the vice president for safety and testing at Virgin Galactic, saying, “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and kill three people.”

During earlier test flights, the Virgin Galactic plane carried scientific experiments. One from University of Florida scientists, for example, tested imaging technologies that capture the reaction of plants — which genes are turned on and off — to the stresses of spaceflight.

In the future, scientists will be able to accompany their experiments. On this flight, Ms. Bandla of Virgin Galactic will perform an experiment that requires handling several tubes during the trip.

The Italian Air Force has purchased seats on future flights for scientific research, as has the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. It will be much easier, faster and cheaper to fly experiments on suborbital flights than to get them to the International Space Station.

Internationally, however, the altitude that marks the start of space is usually set at 100 kilometers, or just over 62 miles, what is known as the Karman line.

SpaceShipTwo was originally intended to rise above the 62-mile altitude, but difficulties during the development of the motor led to a less powerful but more reliable design that cannot propel the spacecraft that high.

But the company’s first vehicle, New Shepard, has much more modest ambitions. Like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, it is designed to take people on short suborbital trips providing about four minutes of weightlessness.

Unlike SpaceShipTwo, New Shepard is a more traditional rocket, launched upward before the capsule detaches from a booster rocket. The booster returns to make a vertical landing, much as the larger Falcon 9 rockets operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX do, while the capsule descends back to the ground under a parachute.

New Shepard also rises above the 62-mile-high Karman line.

Blue Origin highlighted this fact, and several other features of New Shepard, in a tweet on Friday that compared the spacecraft with Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ

Mr. Bezos later wished Mr. Branson and Virgin Galactic “a successful and safe flight tomorrow,” in a post on his Instagram account. He added, “Best of luck!”

They will fly on a Russian Soyuz rocket. So will a Japanese fashion entrepreneur, Yusaku Maezawa, and Yozo Hirano, a production assistant. Their 12-day trip, scheduled to launch in December, is a prelude for a more ambitious around-the-moon trip Mr. Maezawa hopes to embark on in a few years in the giant SpaceX Starship rocket that is currently in development. His trip to the space station is being arranged by Space Adventures, a company that arranged eight similar visits for private citizens between 2001 and 2009.

The Discovery Channel has announced a reality TV show, “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” in which the winner gets to travel to the International Space Station. The eight-episode show, in development, is to run next year.

SpaceX has a couple of missions in the next 12 months that are scheduled to take private citizens to orbit. One is scheduled to launch in September and will carry Jared Isaacman, the billionaire founder of Shift4 Payments, and three other amateur astronauts, on a trip to orbit. A second, booked by the company Axiom Space, will carry three wealthy individuals and an astronaut working for the company to the International Space Station.

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