In 2004, Sir Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic, a company seeking to develop commercial spacecrafts for adventurous space tourists. At the time, he believed space tourism would take off in a year or two. Close to 17 years later, the 70-year-old Branson has now declared “the dawn of a new space age” with a sub-orbital space flight—beating fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos to the weightless punch by nine days.
On 11 July 2021, Branson—accompanied by three crew members and two pilots—took flight aboard Virgin Space Ship Unity (a 62-foot-long SpaceShipTwo-class rocket-powered spaceplane) from Spaceport America in New Mexico at around 10:40 a.m. Eastern Time. Unity separated from its carrier, Virgin Mother Ship Eve, at an altitude of 50,000 feet around 11:25 a.m. and ignited its motor for about 60 seconds. This acceleration essentially makes people on board feel a force up to 3.5 times their normal weight on the way to an altitude of more than 50 miles.
Experiencing three to four minutes of apparent weightlessness, Branson and his crewmates were seen briefly unbuckling themselves and gobbling up the spectacular view of Earth on a live stream as Unity hit its maximum altitude of 53.5 miles. According to CBS News, this altitude is three-and-a-half miles above what NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) consider the official ‘boundary’ of space. Unity later re-entered the atmosphere with its two tail booms rotating up to form a ‘feathered’ configuration to glide the plane into a safe landing. The billionaire and crew members safely landed back on Spaceport America’s 12,000-foot-long runway—thereby closing a flight that lasted 59 minutes from takeoff to touchdown.
“I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid but honestly, nothing could prepare you for the view of Earth from space,” Branson said on-stage after landing. “It was just magical…I’m just taking it all in, it’s unreal.” He congratulated his team for their 17 years of hard work before Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut behind the viral cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity recorded on the International Space Station, pinned wings onto the crewmates’ suits designating them as astronauts.
“How you feel when you look down on Earth is impossible to put into words, it’s just indescribable beauty,” Branson added. “I can’t wait for you all to get up there.”
Grammy-winning artist Khalid debuted his latest single New Normal on-stage during the launch event. Although the song is not set for official release until 21 july 2021, he gave viewers a sneak peek minutes after Branson made history as the first billionaire and the second-oldest man to go to space. Performing a total of three songs, the singer was introduced by American comedian and presenter Stephen Colbert who co-hosted Virgin Galactic’s live stream as well. “Look how far we’ve come just as humanity,” Khalid added during the stream.
Among the list of celebrities who congratulated Branson for his successful flight are Scott Kelly, a former NASA astronaut, General Jay Raymond, the chief of space operations for the US Space Force, George Takei, the actor who played Sulu in Star Trek and his space rival Elon Musk himself. Amazon’s ex-CEO Jeff Bezos—who is set to touch the edge of space on 20 July 2021 himself—also congratulated Branson, adding how he “can’t wait to join the club.”
Accompanying Branson on his historical space flight were pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci—along with three Virgin Galactic employees. Chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and vice president of government affairs and research operations Sirisha Bandla were among the crewmates who joined to evaluate the experience for future customers.
According to The New York Times, Bandla was also scheduled to conduct an experiment from the University of Florida during the flight. The experiment aimed to analyse the impact of changing conditions (particularly the swings in gravity) on plants and plays a part in the broader research that could aid food production on long-duration space missions in the future.
The Virgin Galactic launch event successfully combined private space conquests with the show business. Co-hosted by Stephen Colbert, the live stream of the launch featured plenty of jokes instead of the traditional updates and announcements. The Late Show host even addressed Branson’s failed business ventures like Virgin Cola. “Seriously, he lost money selling sugar water,” Colbert joked. “All aboard.”
Khalid’s live performance was yet another move that coupled show business into the upcoming space tourism industry—thereby serving as an advertisement for future customers. Two hours before the flight, the billionaire shared a photo clicked alongside his shoeless rival Elon Musk captioned: “Great to start the morning with a friend.” Branson also posted a video of himself pedaling to the site flanked by two white Range Rovers at daybreak.
Although Branson insisted that he doesn’t view space tourism as a “race,” CBS News highlighted how the billionaire effectively blindsided Bezos by scheduling his flight just ahead of the Amazon founder’s.
To date, Blue Origin (the spaceflight company founded by Bezos) has carried out 15 unpiloted test flights of its New Shepard rocket and capsule. On 5 May 2021, the company announced plans for its first manned flight set to take off on 20 July—the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. One month later, on 7 June, Bezos shook the world by announcing him and his brother as passengers along with an unidentified winner of an online auction. But only on 1 July, when Bezos updated the media about the recruitment of aviation pioneer Wally Funk aboard New Shepard, did Virgin Galactic break the news about its historic spaceflight.
According to CBS News, Bezos appeared to be on track to win the billionaire space race until the FAA gave Virgin permission to carry passengers on its next test flight. “I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” Branson said in a statement following the announcement. “After more than 16 years of research, engineering and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry, which is set to open space to humankind and change the world for good.”
He also added how he was “honored to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.”
Although Bezos congratulated Branson and his crew both before and after the flight, a viral tweet emerged on 9 July where Blue Origin compared the “New Shepard experience” with that of Virgin Galactic’s. The infographic compared both the companies based on six factors to ultimately redeem itself as the favourable option for future travellers.
“The best time to delete this tweet was immediately after sending it,” a popular reply to the tweet reads. “The second best time is now.” The comments section labelled Blue Origin’s move as “a petty temper tantrum” asking Bezos to look up to Space X as an inspiration instead.
“I’ve said this so many times, it really wasn’t a race,” Branson, however, disagreed at the launch event. “We’re just delighted that everything went so fantastically well. We wish Jeff the absolute best and the people who are going up with him during his flight.”
With more than 600 people signing up for flights, Virgin Galactic originally charged $200,000 a seat and then raised the prices to $250,000 before suspending sales after the 2014 crash. As of today, the company has not confirmed the prices for when it resumes sales. Apart from commercial travellers, the Italian Air Force as well as the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder have signed up for seats on future flights for scientific research.
The billionaire has also teamed up with Omaze to “open space for everyone.” Two lucky winners now have the chance to secure two seats aboard Virgin Galactic’s first commercial spaceflight. The donations are set to support Space For Humanity’s mission “to expand access to space, train our leaders of tomorrow and contribute to a culture of interconnectedness.”
“Imagine a world where people of all ages and backgrounds, from anywhere, of any gender, of any ethnicity have equal access to space,” Branson concluded. “They will in turn, inspire us all back here on Earth.” So if you’ve ever had a dream, Branson believes now is the time to make it come true. Not you anymore, Bezos. Better luck next time.
On June 25 2021, The European Space Agency (ESA) announced its ambitious hopes to launch the world’s first physically disabled astronaut into space. According to the head of the ESA, Josef Aschbacher, several hundred potential future parastronauts have already sent in their applications—as reported by Reuters last week.
“We would like to launch an astronaut with a disability, which would be the first time ever. But I’m also very happy for ESA because it shows that space is for everyone, and that’s something I’d like to convey,” Aschbacher said.
“We got a few hundred applicants also for what we call ‘para astronauts’ or possible astronauts with a physical handicap. We have a number of handicaps that we identified that would qualify for that,” Aschbacher added, continuing, “Of course, mentally, they need to be absolutely fit in order to do the tough job in space.”
“We will launch a feasibility study to see how their physical handicap would be working in space and whether they can do an astronaut’s job in space with a disability they have. This, of course, depends on the person, and this will be the first step in order to identify what can be done. And then eventually, yes, we would like to launch an astronaut with a disability, which would be the first time ever that this happens,” he explained.
The ESA, once top of the food chain in the space industry, with its Ariane rocket dominating the commercial satellite launches, has run into tough competition within the last few years. Tech-funded upstarts like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are now giving public agencies a run for their money.
Only recently did Jeff Bezos himself announce his aims of becoming the first man to fly into the depths of space on his very own rocket. I mean, the billionaire who’s birthed a company that has shown to repeatedly exploit its workforce, is practically swimming in cash—forget a bathtub, he’d be able to fill the Caspian Sea in dollar bills—so who can blame him? Jokes aside, the recent advances from the likes of Bezos and Musk highlight the growing role of tech billionaires in a field that was once dominated by public agencies.
In response to this change, Aschbacher highlighted how “space is developing extremely fast and if we don’t catch up with this train we are left behind.” He added how he wants to refashion the ESA into a more entrepreneurial player, ready to work with venture capitalists to help grow European start-ups in hopes that they could one day rival the big dogs over in Silicon Valley.
This is no easy feat, however. When comparing the difference between the space industry across the Atlantic in just agencies alone, the ESA’s 7 billion euro budget is only a third of NASA’s. The ESA carries out seven or eight launches a year, which is dwarfed by the forty or so launches carried out in the US each year.
That said, this hasn’t stopped Europe from pressing forward. Alongside the ESA’s promise to develop technologies to ensure that those with disabilities, such as shortened legs, can play a part in space exploration, there’s also plans to cooperate with other nations to have European astronauts deployed to stations on the moon. Plans are already going ahead to join the US’ ‘Gateway’ station on the moon. Member states are also considering taking up an invitation from Chinese and Russian agencies to participate in similar moon base projects.
Can Europe rival other nations, or indeed other entrepreneurs, in the increasingly more competitive space industry? Only time will tell. What is already clearer is how, in typical progressive European fashion, the ESA is setting an example of how we can step towards a more accessible, inclusive space for us all.