Richard Branson and My Virgin Trip With Him, Almost 40 Years Ago
Space travel came closer to reality on Sunday morning July 11, when SpaceShipTwo, V.S.S. Unity, took off from the world’s first commercial spaceport, south of Albuquerque New Mexico: a runway takeoff on a round-trip supersonic voyage to the edge of space.
With a stated goal to unite the world with commercial flights through space, Virgin Galactic was founded seventeen years ago by adventurer/philanthropist/billionaire Sir Richard Branson — who is now also Astronaut 001.
It reminds me a (very) tiny bit of when Branson founded upstart Virgin Atlantic with one used airplane. I was invited on the virgin flight of Virgin Air in 1984, from London’s Gatwick airport to Newark, along with selected passengers including Branson and his family. Onboard I met his mum, whose name, Eve, is on the mothership which brought the rocket to space.
Spaceship Unity is about the size of a private jet, and was carried by the mother ship plane to about 45,000 feet. When released, its motor ignited, and the crew felt a force up to 3.5 times their normal weight on the way to an altitude of more than 50 miles, what NASA calls “the entrance to space.”
Although they did not escape gravity, at apogee, Unity’s passengers unbuckled their seat belts and experienced about four minutes of apparent weightlessness.
And in reentry to a perfect landing, Unity acted much of the way like a winged glider.
In addition to pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci, the crew on the rocket plane included Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations, conducting a science experiment provided by the University of Florida; and Branson, tasked to evaluate the cabin experience for future customers.
It’s been a harrowing journey to get to this moment. The company’s first space plane, the V.S.S. Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014 when the co-pilot Michael Alsbury moved a lever too early during the flight, and was killed when the Enterprise broke apart. Pilot Peter Siebold parachuted to safety.
The controls were redesigned so that the tail booms cannot be unlocked prematurely. But Virgin Galactic came close to another catastrophe in 2019, when a seal along one of the stabilizers ruptured.
Space companies like Virgin Galactic have been given a “learning period” to try out designs and procedures. The rocket plane has not been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, and will not be until 2023. (It does regulate enough so that their is minimal risk to the “uninvolved public.”)
Virgin Galactic is the first platform to open space for all of us, although there are competitors, such as Blue Origin, using a more automated vertical takeoff-landing, owned and led by Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos. And there’s also Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
So if you’ve been just about everywhere and if you’re looking for bragging rights among well-traveled friends, you may soon have the opportunity to travel about 90 minutes — launch to landing — for maybe a quarter million dollars or so (!) for a few seconds in space, beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
Prices will (eventually) come way down as space tourists, researchers and even astronauts fly commercial, and someday many of us may be shuttling off for a “Spacecation.” Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson, astronaut, said to check out Amaze.com/space for a chance to win two seats on an upcoming flight!
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