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

SPACEPORT AMERICA, N.M. — Soaring more than 50 miles into the hot, glaringly bright skies above New Mexico, Richard Branson finally fulfilled a dream that took decades to realize: He can now call himself an astronaut. On Sunday morning, a small rocket plane operated by Virgin Galactic, which Mr. Branson founded in 2004, carried him and five other people to the edge of space and back. More than an hour later, Mr. Branson took the stage to celebrate. “The whole thing was magical,” he said.

Later, during a news conference, Mr. Branson was still giddy, saying, “I don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth because I feel I’m still in space.” Mr. Branson’s flight reinforces the hopes of space enthusiasts that routine travel to the final frontier may soon be available to private citizens, not just the professional astronauts of NASA and other space agencies. Another billionaire with his own rocket company — Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon — has plans to make a similar tour to the edge of space in nine days.

In each case, billionaire entrepreneurs risk injury or death to fulfill their childhood aspirations — and advance the goal of making human spaceflight unexceptional. “They’re putting their money where their mouth is, and their body where their money is,” said Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures Limited, a company that charters launch to orbit. “That’s impressive, frankly.”

Jeff Bezos

At 8:40 a.m., Mountain Time, a carrier aircraft with the rocket plane named V.S.S. Unit tucked underneath rose off the runway and headed to an altitude of about 45,000 feet. There, Unity was released, and a few moments later, its rocket motor ignited, accelerating the space plane on an upward arc. Although Unity had made three previous trips to space, this was its first launch that resembled a full commercial flight that Virgin Galactic promised to offer the general public, with two pilots — David Mackay and Michael Masucci — and four more crew members, including Mr. Branson.

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 C.B.S. program “The Late Show” introduced webcast segments. 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 the 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 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 so far up there, and I was 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 experimented with the University of Florida that looked at how plants react to the changing conditions — particularly the swings in gravity — during the flight, part of research that could aid in 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. For over a decade, Mr. Branson, the irreverent 70-year-old British billionaire who runs a galaxy of Virgin companies, has repeatedly said he believed commercial flights would soon begin. So did the 600 or so customers of Virgin Galactic who have paid $200,000 or more for their tickets to space and are still waiting.

Founding a space exploration company was perhaps an unsurprising step for Mr. Branson, who has made a career — and a fortune estimated at $6 billion — building flashy upstart businesses that he promotes with a showman’s flair. So did the taxpayers of New Mexico, who paid $220 million to build Spaceport America, a futuristic vision in the desert, to attract Mr. Branson’s company. After years and years of unmet promises, Virgin Galactic may begin flying the first paying passengers next year after two more test flights. But with tickets costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, this experience will, for now, remain out of financial reach for most people.

What became his Virgin business empire began with a small record shop in central London in the 1970s before Mr. Branson parlayed it into Virgin Records, the home of acts like the Sex Pistols, Peter Gabriel, and more. In 1984, he was a co-founder of what became Virgin Atlantic. The Virgin Group branched out into a mobile-phone service, a passenger railway, and a line of hotels. Not all have performed flawlessly. Two of his airlines filed for insolvency during the pandemic last year, while few today remember his ventures into soft drinks, cosmetics, or lingerie.

Virgin Galactic joined the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 after merging with a publicly traded investment fund, giving it a potent source of new funds to compete with deep-pocket competitors — and publicity, with Mr. Branson marking its trading debut at the exchange in one of the company’s flight suits. The spaceflight company was of a piece with Mr. Branson’s penchant for high-flying pursuits like skydiving and hot-air ballooning. The Virgin Group retains a 24 percent stake in Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic’s space plane is a scaled-up version of SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 captured the $10 million Ansari X Prize as the first reusable crewed spacecraft built by a nongovernmental organization to make it to space twice in two weeks. Mr. Branson initially predicted commercial flights would begin by 2007. But the development of the larger craft, SpaceShipTwo, stretched out. The first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, V.S.S. Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014, killing one of the pilots. Virgin Galactic was 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. This year, the mishap was revealed 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 about 200 miles 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. A fourth unnamed passenger paid $28 million in an auction for one of the seats. In the 1960s, she was among women who passed the same rigorous criteria that NASA used for selecting astronauts. Still, the space agency had no interest in selecting women as astronauts.

In a tweet on Friday, Mr. Bezos’ company emphasized the rivalry with Virgin Galactic for space tourism passengers. Blue Origin highlighted differences between its New Shepard rocket and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, including that New Shepard flies higher, above 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, often regarded as the boundary of space. Neither Blue Origin nor Virgin Galactic flights go high enough or fast enough to enter orbit around Earth. Instead, these suborbital flights are more like big roller coaster rides that allow passengers to float for a few minutes while admiring a view of Earth against the black backdrop of space.

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. However, the United States Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration set the limit at 50 miles. Mr. Bezos 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 wasn’t a race.” He added, “We wish Jeff the absolute best.”

Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire, is chartering a rocket and spacecraft from SpaceX for a three-day trip to orbit scheduled for September. 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 sweepstake that will give away two seats on a future Virgin Galactic flight. Virgin Galactic is planning two more tests to conduct, including one where scientists from the Italian Air Force will undertake science experiments before commencing commercial service. The era of nonprofessional astronauts regularly heading to orbit may also begin in the coming year.

In December, Space Adventures arranged for a Japanese fashion entrepreneur, Yusaku Maezawa, and Yozo Hirano, a production assistant, to launch a Russian Soyuz rocket on a 12-day mission that will go to the International Space Station. Another company, Axiom Space in Houston, is arranging a separate trip to the space station that will launch as soon as January. The orbital trips are too expensive for anyone except the superwealthy — Axiom’s three customers are paying $55 million each — while suborbital flights might be affordable to those who are merely well off. But how many people are willing to spend as much as some houses cost for a few minutes of space travel?

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 sure. 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. About 200 people signed up at one point, but none of the suborbital rocket companies could get their promised spacecraft close to flight. Space Adventures returned the money to Ms. Funk and the others. Thiss 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.

Tyson Houlding
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