Billionaire Richard Branson took off Sunday from a base in New Mexico aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel bound for the edge of space, a voyage he hopes will lift the nascent space tourism industry off the ground.
A massive carrier plane made a horizontal take-off from Space Port, New Mexico at around 8:40 am Mountain Time (1440 GMT) and will ascend for around an hour to an altitutude of 50,000 feet (15 kilometers).
The mothership will then drop a rocket-powered spaceplane called VSS Unity, which will ignite its engine and ascend at Mach 3 beyond the 50 miles (80 kilometers) carrying two pilots and four passengers, including Branson.
Once the rocket engine is cut off, passengers can unbuckle and experience a few minutes of weightlessness, while admiring the curvature of Earth from the ship’s 17 windows.
The VSS Unity passenger rocket plane marked the company’s 22nd test flight of its SpaceShipTwo system, and its fourth crewed mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Video posted by Virgin Galactic showed Branson arriving earlier at the takeoff site on his bicycle and greeting crewmates with a hug.
Reaching its high-altitude launch point at about 46,000 feet, Unity was released from the mothership and fell away as its crew ignited the vehicle’s rocket, sending it streaking straight upward at supersonic speed to the blackness of space some 53 miles (85.9 km) high.
At the apex of the climb with the rocket shut down, the crew then experienced a few minutes of microgravity, before the spaceplane shifted into re-entry mode, and began a gliding descent to a runway back at the spaceport. The entire flight, from takeoff to landing, lasted about an hour.
A third player in the space race, Musk’s SpaceX, plans to send its first all-civilian crew (without Musk) into orbit in September, after having already launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA.
Richard said, my wife Joan Templeman told him, If you’re foolish enough to do these wonderful things, you can…but I won’t be going to your funeral. The fact is she gor nervousness about his spaceflight. Branson has joined with five others, including Indian-born aeronautical engineer Sirisha Bandla, on board Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity for the test flight.
Sirisha will operate a NASA-supported plant experiment during Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed spacefligh. Bandla will activate three plant-filled tubes to release a preservative at critical data-collection stages during the flight. She will operate the experiment on behalf of co-investigators Dr Robert Ferl and Dr Anna-Lisa Paul.