British billionaire Richard Branson rode a rocket of his company Virgin Galactic to fly to the edge of space today. The company plans to start space tourism in the near future, and this flight is part of the test program for that plan. The flight is intended as a marketing event and also a confidence-building exercise for the planned commercial space flight by the company, which is scheduled to start next year if everything goes right.
The billionaire is joined by five company employees who are took off to space in a company rocket from a launchpad in New Mexico, USA. “It’s a beautiful day to go to space. We’ve arrived at Spaceport America”, Branson tweeted just two hours before his scheduled take-off.
It is was take off and not lift off, because Richard Branson and his co-travelers boarded a space vehicle that was carried by another aircraft, which took off from a runway at the company’s Spaceport America launch site in New Mexico.
The Virgin Galactic’s space vehicle rides a specially built dual-fuselage aircraft as the launchpad for its rocket. The White Night Two, which is powered by four jet engines, looks like two conventional aircraft joined by the wings, which carry the space vehicle SpaceShipTwo. After taking off like a conventional aircraft, after reaching an altitude of around 13 kilometers, the SpaceShipTwo is released from the launch vehicle. The space vehicle then fires its own rocket engines for the journey to space.
The space vehicle, fired by a VSS Unity rocket, can reach a maximum height of around 70 kilometers, after which it glides back to earth for a runway landing. The vehicle is expected to land on the runway around one and a half-hour after the takeoff.
David Mackay and Michael Masucci, who had filed on earlier test flights of the company, are piloting the space vehicle, which will experience zero gravity for few minutes, before starting a slow descend to the earth.
Other than Branson and the two pilots, the passengers are Virgin Galactic astronaut trainer Beth Moses, flight engineer Colin Bennett, and Sirisha Bandla, the company’s vice president of government affairs and research operations.
Branson was scheduled to take the flight later in the year, but when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced his plan to fly to space on his company Blue Origin rocket on July 20, Branson decided to beat him to be the first entrepreneur to reach space on his own rocket.
Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin plan to operate passenger flights to the edge of space. With today’s flight, the competition between the two companies in the space tourism business officially started.