Branson Beats Jeff Bezos to Space, Aiming to Open Space Tourism

SPACEPORT AMERICA, N.M. — Soaring greater than 50 miles into the recent, obviously shiny skies above New Mexico, Richard Branson eventually fulfilled a dream that took a long time to understand: He can now name himself an astronaut.

On Sunday morning, a small rocket aircraft operated by Virgin Galactic, which Mr. Branson based in 2004, carried him and 5 different folks to the sting of house and again.

More than an hour later, Mr. Branson took the stage to have fun. “The whole thing was magical,” he mentioned.

Later, throughout a information convention, Mr. Branson was nonetheless giddy, saying “I don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth because I feel I’m still in space.”

This flight resembled a party for Virgin Galactic and the nascent space tourism business. Guests included Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX; Michelle Lujan Grisham, the governor of New Mexico; and about 60 customers who have paid for future Virgin Galactic flights.

Stephen Colbert of the CBS program “The Late Show” introduced segments of the webcast. After the landing, the R&B singer Khalid performed a new song.

When the fuel was spent, Unity continued to coast upward to an altitude of 53.5 miles. The four people in back unbuckled and experienced about four minutes of floating before returning to their seats.

Mr. Branson was accompanied in the cabin by Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.

Mr. Bennett said that he was busy with tasks during the first part of the flight and then he heard Ms. Moses shouting, “Don’t forget to look out the window.”

He did. “It’s very Zen,” Mr. Bennett said of the view of Earth below. “What jumped out at me were the colors and just how far away it looked. It felt like we were just so far up there, and I was just mesmerized.”

Ms. Bandla’s role was to evaluate another market Virgin Galactic is targeting: scientists doing research that takes advantage of minutes of microgravity. She conducted an experiment from the University of Florida which looked 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.

As the space plane re-entered the atmosphere, the downward pull of gravity resumed. Unity glided to a landing back at the spaceport.

Michael Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, said the flight appeared to go flawlessly. “The ship looks pristine, no issues whatsoever,” Mr. Moses said.

The first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, V.S.S. Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014, killing one of the pilots. Virgin Galactic was then grounded until Unity was completed a year and a half later.

In 2019, Virgin Galactic came close to another catastrophe when a seal on a rear horizontal stabilizer ruptured because a new thermal protection film had been improperly installed.

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

Mr. Bezos’ flight is to take place about 200 miles to the southeast of Spaceport America in Van Horn, Texas, where his rocket company, Blue Origin, launches its New Shepard rocket and capsule.

Although Blue Origin has yet to fly any people on New Shepard, 15 successful uncrewed tests of the fully automated system convinced the company it would be safe to put Mr. Bezos on the first flight with people aboard.

He will be joined by his brother, Mark, and Mary Wallace Funk, an 82-year-old pilot. In the 1960s, she was among a group of women who passed the same rigorous criteria that NASA used for selecting astronauts, but the space agency at the time had no interest in selecting women as astronauts. A fourth unnamed passenger paid $28 million in an auction for one of the seats.

Neither Blue Origin nor Virgin Galactic flights go high enough or fast enough to enter orbit around Earth. Rather, these suborbital flights are more like giant roller coaster rides that allow passengers to float for a few minutes while admiring a view of Earth against the black backdrop of space.

Mr. Bezos’ company emphasized the rivalry with Virgin Galactic for space tourism passengers in a tweet on Friday. Blue Origin highlighted differences between its New Shepard rocket and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo including the fact that New Shepard flies higher, above the altitude of 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, that is often regarded as the boundary of space. However, the United States Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration set the boundary at 50 miles.

The company also noted the size of the New Shepard capsule’s windows, and called Virgin Galactic’s Unity “a high-altitude plane” in contrast to New Shepard’s rocket.

Mr. Bezos on Sunday congratulated Mr. Branson and his fellow crew on their flight. “Can’t wait to join the club!” he said in an Instagram post.

At the news conference, Mr. Branson said, “It really wasn’t a race.” He added, “We wish Jeff the absolute best.”

Blue Origin has not yet announced a ticket price, and Virgin Galactic’s earlier quoted fare of $250,000 will probably rise. But on Sunday after his trip, Mr. Branson announced a sweepstakes that will give away two seats on a future Virgin Galactic flight.

Virgin Galactic is planning two more tests flight to conduct including one where scientists from the Italian Air Force will undertake science experiments before commencing commercial service.

Carissa Christensen, founder and chief executive of Bryce Space and Technology, an aerospace consulting firm, thinks there will be plenty. “Based on previous ticket sales, surveys and interviews,” she said in an email, “we see strong demand signals for multiple hundreds of passengers a year at current prices, with potential for thousands if prices drop significantly.”

Mr. Anderson of Space Adventures is less certain.

Two decades ago, his company did sell suborbital flights including a ticket to Ms. Funk, who goes by Wally. “Wally Funk was one of our first customers,” Mr. Anderson said. “That would have been like 1998.”

The ticket price then was $98,000.

At one point, about 200 people signed up, but none of the suborbital rocket companies were able to get their promised spacecraft close to flight. Space Adventures returned the money to Ms. Funk and the others.

Now this unproven suborbital market has whittled down to a battle of billionaires — Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos.

“If anybody can make money and make the market work for suborbital, it’s Branson and Bezos,” Mr. Anderson said. “They have the reach and the cachet.”

Michael J. de la Merced and Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.

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