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Branson, Virgin Galactic pull off key test for space tourism

Bolsters the company’s plan to debut tourism trips next year.
Image: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Billionaire Richard Branson’s long-awaited test flight to space, taken alongside five of his Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. employees, bolsters the company’s plan to debut tourism trips next year.

The VSS Unity space plane detached from a carrier aircraft high over New Mexico and rocketed to a speed of Mach 3 on its way to an altitude of about 282 000 feet, or more than 53 miles (86 kilometers) above the Earth. The Unity then glided back through sunny skies and landed at about 9:38 a.m. local time on Sunday — approximately an hour after taking off.

“Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” Branson told guests at the Spaceport America complex near the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. He later said to reporters, “I was once a kid with a dream looking up to the stars and now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking back to our beautiful Earth.”

The suborbital journey kicks off a landmark month for the future of space tourism, with Branson looking to demonstrate Virgin Galactic’s capabilities nine days before Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos plans to fly on a rocket made by Blue Origin, his space venture. Both companies envision businesses catering to wealthy tourists willing to pay top dollar for a short period of weightlessness and an unforgettable view of the Earth and heavens.

Virgin Galactic’s test flight demonstrated that such trips — once the stuff of science fiction — are becoming increasingly realistic. The shares gained 10% in premarket US trading, after doubling in price this year.

While mostly accessible only to a tiny number of super-wealthy customers, the trips would add a new dimension to a burgeoning industry of private-sector space companies with plans for voyages to the International Space Station and new human outposts.

Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is pushing ahead with even grander designs. The company is already carrying astronauts to the space station for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and planning its own tourism flights. SpaceX is also developing a rocket designed to reach the moon and Mars, rapidly expanding its satellite-launch business and building a network of Starlink satellites to provide internet service around the world.

Branson and his fellow crew members experienced a few minutes of weightlessness as the Unity reached its peak altitude. Virgin Galactic operations engineer Colin Bennett said he was so busy with assigned cabin work at the start of the space journey that fellow passenger and company executive Beth Moses had to remind him to look out the window.

“So I looked out the window and the view is just stunning,” he said. “It’s very Zen; it’s very kind of peaceful up there as well.”

The space plane held up well in the test mission and “looks pristine,” said Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic’s president of space missions and safety and who had the distinction of having both his boss and wife aboard the spacecraft. He acknowledged transmission problems with the livestream, which cut in and out as people all over the world watched.

“We think we have some antenna blockage we can work on, but that’s the only actual real issue we’re tracking right now on the ship,” he said. “We’ll take our time and do all the detailed inspections and then we’ll figure out when we’re ready to go again.”

The mission was the spacecraft’s 22nd test flight and first with a large crew. Virgin Galactic dubbed the flight “Unity 22,” and it was the first of two tests the company is planning this summer before an astronaut-training mission with Italian Air Force personnel later this year.

Branson’s job on the trip was to evaluate the customer experience during the flight and in the various preparatory events Virgin Galactic plans around its launches. Also on board:

  • Dave “Mac” Mackay, chief pilot. He is among Virgin Galactic’s earliest hires. He is a former UK Royal Air Force test pilot and Boeing 747 aviator at Branson-backed Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. Mackay, who grew up in a rural village in northern Scotland, became the first Scotsman to fly to space.
  • Michael “Sooch” Masucci, pilot. He is a retired US Air Force lieutenant colonel with more than 10 000 hours experience in the U-2 and F-16 jets, along with dozens of other aircraft types. He joined Virgin in 2013 and first flew to space in 2019.
  • Sirisha Bandla, Virgin’s vice president of government affairs. She tested the “researcher experience” during the flight with a plant experiment from the University of Florida. Born in Guntur, in the Andhra Pradesh province of southern India, she became the second Indian-American woman to travel in space.
  • Bennett, a Virgin Galactic engineer. He evaluated cabin procedures during the test flight. Bennett has worked for Virgin Galactic as an operations engineer for six years in California, according to his LinkedIn page. Previously, he was an engineer at Virgin Atlantic.
  • Moses, Virgin’s chief astronaut instructor. She was making her second space flight after a trip in February 2019. That flight made Moses the 571st person to travel to space, according to Virgin Galactic. She was the test director Sunday and the cabin lead. Moses worked for NASA for 24 years before joining the company. She is married to Mike Moses, the company’s space missions and safety head.

Virgin last flew the two-craft system on May 22. The company said the Unity performed well after more than two months of work to minimize electromagnetic interference that had delayed a planned February 2021 test. In a flight in December 2020, the rocket motor failed to ignite and the spacecraft glided back to the spaceport.

The test in May was the company’s first successful powered flight since February 2019. Following the test that took place more than two years ago, flight engineers discovered hull damage on the spacecraft from air pressure that had built up after ventilating holes were accidentally covered, according to “Test Gods,” a book published this year by New Yorker writer Nicholas Schmidle.

Virgin Galactic plans to begin working down its backlog of around 600 confirmed customers in early 2022. Virgin Galactic has said it will resume ticket sales after the summer’s test flights, with executives saying that fares will be higher than the prior price of $250 000 a seat.

The company’s shares have doubled this year through Friday, lifting the company’s value to almost $12 billion. Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, said another reward was seeing the Earth from space.

”I’m never going to be able to do it justice,” he said. “It’s indescribably beautiful.”

© 2021 Bloomberg

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