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Virgin Galactic launch: Richard Branson becomes first billionaire in space

·17 min read
Branson
Branson

Sir Richard Branson became the first person to go into space in his own ship on Sunday, beating rival billionaire Jeff Bezos by just days in what he called “the dawn of a new space age”.

The British entrepreneur touched down safely in New Mexico after a hair-raising flight with his company Virgin Galactic that briefly took him and three fellow passengers beyond the reach of Earth’s gravity.

The spacecraft, called the VSS Unity, detached from a carrier aeroplane at 50,000 ft and fired a hybrid rocket engine to blast up to 85,000 feet, above what the United States defines as the edge of space.

It was a landmark moment for Virgin Galactic’s 17-year attempt to make commercial space tourism a reality, giving future customers a demonstration that its vehicle works after previously suffering fatal accidents.

It was also a blow to Mr Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the world’s richest person, who has scheduled his own launch with his space company Blue Origin for July 20.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson posing in his flight suit - VIRGIN GALACTIC/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson posing in his flight suit - VIRGIN GALACTIC/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In a ceremony after landing, Sir Richard, 70, accepted a pair of astronaut’s wings and hailed his flight as “the experience of a lifetime.”

He said: “What a day, what a day. I think like most kids I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid, and honestly nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space.

“Suddenly you’re looking down and seeing people looking up at you - hang on, what are you doing down there? I’m just taking it all in, it’s unreal…

“My mission was to turn the dream of space travel into a reality for my grandchildren, for your grandchildren, for many people who are alive today, for everybody.

“And having flown to space, I have seen how Virgin Galactic is the space line for Earth. We’re here to make space accessible to all, and we want to turn the next generation of dreamers into the astronauts of today and tomorrow.”

Starting at 4am local time, about 500 people gathered at a spaceport near the town of Truth or Consequences to see the launch. Camera crews and staff bustled as a master of ceremonies tried to hype up the crowd, creating an atmosphere more reminiscent of a cruise ship disco than a grave scientific milestone.

The mothership, named Eve after Sir Richard’s mother, took off quietly and without much ceremony, save for silence from the crowd as it accelerated and cheers when it left the ground.

But when Unity detached from Eve and began its rocket burn, it was easily visible from the ground as a sudden streak of white smoke climbing rapidly into the deep sky. Sir Richard attempted to address the crowd from space, but the audio link broke.

Then Unity’s “feathering” stage - in which its twin tails swing upwards from the craft’s body at a 60 degree angle to create drag and help it drift down to Earth - deployed safely, avoiding a replay of the 2014 accident that tore its sister ship Enterprise into pieces and killed the co-pilot.

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity bound for the edge of space with Sir Richard Branson - PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity bound for the edge of space with Sir Richard Branson - PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

After a surprisingly brief glide back to Earth, during which a rapper from nearby El Paso entertained the crowd, Unity rolled to a stop and Sir Richard alighted to hug and kiss his wife and children. The whole journey after detaching from Eve took less than 15 minutes.

Mr Bezos issued a catty salute on Instagram, saying: “Congratulations on the flight. Can’t wait to join the club!” Blue Origin had previously blasted Virgin for only breaking the US-defined boundary of space, which is lower than many other countries’, claiming that Sir Richard would have “an asterisk next to [his] name” on any list of real astronauts.

With his “Willy Wonka hat on”, the British tycoon also announced a competition to win two seats on a Virgin Galactic flight next year. A winner will be announced in September.

Virgin has about 600 ticket-holders who have been waiting for their seats since before 2014 and paid between $200,000 and $250,000. Analysts have estimated future tickets will cost about $400,000.

By Io Dodds in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

04:10 PM

Wrap

That's all from us for today. Sir Richard has achieved a lifetime ambition of being blasted into space. After a weather delay, the voyage appeared to go exactly to plan with the 70-year-old spending a few brief moments above the atmosphere.

Thanks for following!

04:01 PM

VSS Unity touches down

The gleaming silver bird-shape of the VSS Unity touched down, braked on the hot concrete, and rolled to a full stop. Sir Richard Branson and his crew have returned safely from the edge of space.

The stop marks the end of their trip, but the real moment of relief came earlier, just after the end of Unity's burn, when the craft deployed its "feathering" system. At this stage, the craft's twin tails swivel upwards away from its body at about a 60 degree angle, creating a balanced drag profile that helps keep it stable as it re-enters Earth's atmosphere.

It was this system that, in 2014, caused the SpaceShipTwo programme's most horrific accident when the feathering system activated early and tore Unity's sister ship, the Enterprise, to pieces. Investigators blamed human error by a nervous co-pilot, who was killed.

When Unity's feathering system was fully deployed – and the flight continued – was when I felt myself untense.

By Io Dodds in New Mexico

03:45 PM

Branson lands back on earth

After about an hour in the air, the spacecraft has landed back in New Mexcio. Mission complete.

03:40 PM

How it looked from the ground

Io Dodds has a video of how the launch of the spacecraft looked from the ground.

03:35 PM

'The experience of a lifetime'

Sir Richard and Unity are now re entering the atmosphere and going into a glide. For a few minutes they were weightless - before floating back to their seats. The whole process lasted only a few minutes.

The audio link wasn't working for most of the journey, but on the descent, Sir Richard said it was "the experience of a lifetime".

03:32 PM

Branson heads back to earth

He didn't hang around long..

After breaking the earth's atmosphere the spacecraft is already heading back to earth.

03:29 PM

'Welcome to space, Unity 22'

The burn was visible from the spaceport – a trail of white smoke suddenly diverging into two trails, one accelerating rapidly into the deep sky.

And they’ve done it. “Welcome to space, Unity 22."

By Io Dodds in New Mexico

03:28 PM

And it's away..

Richard Branson's spacecraft has detached from the mothership and is heading towards space.

03:23 PM

T-minus three minutes

The big moment, when the spacecraft detaches from the mothership, is less than three minutes away.

Follow it on our livestream.

03:18 PM

Why was there no countdown?

Branson 
Branson

Why was there no countdown when Eve lifted off? Because Virgin wants to reserve the real fireworks for the moment when Unity detaches from Eve and fires its rocket engine to begin the climb into space.

A spokeswoman confirmed to me that there will be a countdown to moment. This makes sense: taking off in Eve (or WhiteKnightTwo, as the model is known) will feel exactly like riding a normal aeroplane, which most of us have done often enough that we may not even look up from our book.

By contrast, the climb into space aboard Unity (or SpaceShipTwo) will feel completely new to most customers. That's when they will be pressed back into their seats by the intense G-forces necessary to escape Earth's gravity.

Virgin's PR often stresses tiny details of interior design intended to make space flight feel like a luxury experience. It has probably probably thought very hard about when to deliver the countdown and blast off that any space tourist would naturally expect.

By Io Dodds in New Mexico

03:08 PM

Unity to detach from mothership at 4.20 (BST)

Sir Richard and his fellow passengers are now on their way. Unity is scheduled to detach from Eve at about 4:20pm UK time (surely not a tribute to Elon Musk?).

In a post-launch interview, Virgin Galactic's chief executive Michael Colglazier said:

This is a landmark moment for Virgin Galactic, a landmark moment for the commercial space industry.

It certainly is a landmark moment for Richard Branson, who right now is showing that if you have the fortitude to follow your dreams, you can make a hugely profound impact on the world.

It's a historic moment, because today we're going to open access to space.

Tickets are currently expected to cost anything from $200,000 to $400,000.

By Io Dodds in New Mexico

03:00 PM

In pictures: Branson takes off

Branson
Branson
Branson
Branson
Branson 
Branson

02:49 PM

Branson heads for space – without a countdown

Eve has lifted off, quietly and without a countdown. The music stopped, the crowd grew silent and then cheered as it passed by and climbed cleanly into the blue.

By Io Dodds in New Mexico

02:46 PM

Lift off

Branson and his crew have taken off from New Mexico.

Watch our livestream at the top of the blog.

02:30 PM

Launched delayed by up to 15 minutes

There is a slight delay in launch (hence why we are yet to get a live stream of it).

Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier says it is expected to take to the skies between 3.35 and 3.45 (BST).

“This is an historic moment… make sure you’ve got a beverage.”

02:27 PM

T-minus three minutes

It’s T-minus three minutes here at the spaceport. The VSS Unity and its launcher mothership Eve - named after Sir Richard’s mother - are just about visible beyond the scrub at the far end of a runway.

Unity’s initial lift-off will lack the drama of a traditional space launch. Eve will lift off, carrying Unity between its twin hills, and the real action will come when Unity detaches and fires up its hybrid rocket engine at around 50,000 ft.

The speakers are playing Frank Sinatra’s ‘Come Fly With Me’ (of course) and The Clash’s version of ‘I Fought The Law’ (relevance unclear).

By Io Dodds in New Mexico

02:17 PM

'Godspeed': Musk and Peake wish Branson a successful flight

Astronaut Tim Peake and Elon Musk wish Branson and crew well.

02:08 PM

Branson and crew head for spacecraft

Sir Richard has left the building. He and the rest of the Unity 22 crew members walked through a crowd of cheering supporters and Virgin staff to a convoy of four land rovers, which then carried them off to their vehicle, the VSS Unity.

By Io Dodds in New Mexico

02:00 PM

How will it work?

The white spacecraft will take off attached to the underside of a specially designed twin-fuselage carrier jet VMS Eve – named for Branson's late mother

At 50,000 feet, it will separate from the mothership and Unity's rocket engine will then ignite to send the craft 55 miles high, where the crew will experience about four minutes of microgravity.

With the engine shut down near the peak of its climb, the craft will then be shifted into re-entry mode before gliding back to a runway landing at the spaceport in New Mexico. The entire flight, from takeoff to landing is expected take about 90 minutes.

(via Reuters)

01:43 PM

Branson beats Bezos in billionaire space race

Jeff Bezos has fair reason to be annoyed with Sir Richard. The Amazon mogul had barely announced his own debut flight with Blue Origin on July 20 before his British rival declared that he would fly on July 11.

A cynic might suggest that the incorrigibly publicity-hungry Sir Richard – who once posed naked on the front page of The Sun to promote his memoir 'Losing My Virginity' – rushed his schedule specifically to beat Mr Bezos. However, Sir Richard claims this did not occur to him.

The two men are direct competitors for the nascent market in "sub-orbital" space tourism. This is a cheaper form of space flight that involves merely poking your head above the boundary of Earth's atmosphere for a couple of minutes without completing a full orbit of the planet.

By contrast, Elon Musk's SpaceX is more interested in full orbital tourism, with a reported 55m price tag per seat.

Both men also have a history of adventuring: Sir Richard with his famous world record attempts at crossing various oceans in balloons and boats, and Mr Bezos with his quest to recover a lost Apollo mission booster rocket from the sea floor (he succeeded, and it is now in a museum).

There is no comparison, however, in terms of wealth. Mr Bezos is the richest person in the world with a net worth of $212 billion, according to Forbes, while Sir Richard, despite living on a private island in the British Virgin Isles, is ranked 589th with $6bn.

By Io Dodds in New Mexico

01:27 PM

Virgin Galactic short sellers could be in for huge losses

Short sellers are primed for mammoth losses if Sir Richard Branson returns safely from space on Sunday, according to industry data.

Figures from the market intelligence firm S3 Partners on Friday showed an estimated $1.6bn (£1.2bn) of the space company's shares, or about 15pc of all shares available, were held by speculators betting against the company.

That was despite such wagers making a paper loss of $1.4bn since the start of this year as Virgin Galactic stock soared by as much as 261pc, frustrating short sellers who had counted it falling.

Ihor Dusaniwsky, S3's managing director, said Virgin short sellers are now at maximum risk of a "squeeze", in which a rapid share surge forces them to buy more shares in the company to cover their losses, raising the price each time.

"When Branson lands, the short sellers are going to crash to Earth," Mr Dusaniwsky said. "If all goes well this short squeeze will accelerate.

By Io Dodds in New Mexico

01:18 PM

Sir Richard has arrived at the spaceport - apparently by bicycle

He was greeted by Virgin Galactic chief astronaut trainer Beth Moses, one of his fellow passengers on today's flight, who hugged him and exclaimed: "Let's go to space, Richard!"

Also likely to be here is SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk, a rival to Sir Richard. According to reports, his private jet landed in nearby Las Cruces last night, and he told Sir Richard on Friday that he would soon be wishing him luck in person.

Less clear is the location of Jeff Bezos. He wished Sir Richard luck on Instagram yesterday, but only the day before his company Blue Origin had attacked Virgin for not taking its passengers high enough to make them real astronauts.

"From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Karman line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name," the company said, charmingly.

By Io Dodds in New Mexico

01:14 PM

Lift off approaching

Our reporter Io Dodds has more from on the scene:

Good morning from the Jornada del Muerto desert in New Mexico, where Sir Richard Branson is due to lift off today in Virgin Galactic's first passenger flight to the edge of space. The sun has just risen over the runway and the spaceport is bustling with reporters, camera crews, Virgin staff and special guests. A master of ceremonies is attempting to hype everyone up with regular loudspeaker broadcasts, making this feel more like a cruise ship disco than a momentous milestone in human spaceflight.

Above it all looms the spaceport's departure lounge - a wide, low, glass-walled structure with a curving roof like the fringe of a mushroom, partly buried into the landscape around it. It's much more like a traditional airport than a space launch pad, which is by design.

VSS Unity - Virgin Galactic
VSS Unity - Virgin Galactic

One of Virgin's unique selling points is that its WhiteKnightTwo spacecraft is initially lifted to 50,000 feet by a specially designed aeroplane, allowing it to both take off and glide to a landing on conventional runways. In theory, this will make Virgin's method cheaper and easier to expand across the world than Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket, which is similar to those that took the first astronauts aloft.

12:16 PM

The weather is the unknown factor

Io Dodds is at the scene for us, and tells us about the delay in vehicles leaving the hangar due to the weather.

The likely culprit is the summer thunderstorms that have been blowing through the sky over Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the closest town to Virgin’s desert spaceport, he tells us.

He adds: "Driving down from Albuquerque last night in warm desert air, I suddenly had to turn my windscreen wipers on full as the clouds burst. Throughout the journey, sudden flashes and arcs of lightning lit up the dark distance."

Lightning flashes over Spaceport America prior to the launch of Virgin Galactics SpaceShipTwo Unity in Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico. - David Lienemann/Getty Images
Lightning flashes over Spaceport America prior to the launch of Virgin Galactics SpaceShipTwo Unity in Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico. - David Lienemann/Getty Images

12:15 PM

Battle of the billionaires

Sir Richard will become the first owner-astronaut to take part in a mission, beating Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who plans to reach space in his own rocket through his Blue Origin company.

The Sunday Times newspaper reported this weekend that Elon Musk - who owns rival exploration company SpaceX - has paid for a seat on a future Virgin voyage.

Mr Musk paid a 10,000-dollar (£7,000) deposit to reserve a seat but no date for his flight has been specified.

Sir Richard confirmed the purchase in an interview with the newspaper, saying he might reciprocate by booking a ticket on a SpaceX flight in the future.

"Elon's a friend and maybe I'll travel on one of his ships one day," he said.

12:14 PM

It's the big day

Hello, and welcome to our liveblog as Sir Richard Branson aims to blast off from Earth on board his own rocket ship.

The billionaire businessman has always dreamed of space flight, and in 2004 founded his own company to make it happen.

On Sunday afternoon, he will take off from a base in New Mexico aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel bound for the edge of space.

The launch was due to take place around 2pm but has been pushed back due to weather overnight at Spaceport America.

The launch time from New Mexico is now set for 3.30pm UK time.