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Sir Richard Branson reaches the edge of space


Sir Richard Branson reaches the edge of space
Also on the flight: Two pilots and three crewmates from Virgin Galactic. (Virgin Galactic)

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London – Billionaire Sir Richard Branson has successfully reached the edge of space on board his Virgin Galactic rocket plane.

The United Kingdom entrepreneur flew high above New Mexico in the United States in the vehicle that his company has been developing for 17 years.

The trip was, he said, the “experience of a lifetime”.

He returned safely to Earth just over an hour after leaving the ground.

“I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid, but honestly nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space,” he said in a press conference following the flight. “The whole thing was just magical.”

The trip also makes him the first of the new space tourism pioneers to try out their own vehicles, beating Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk.

Some 600 individuals have already paid deposits for tickets that will cost them up to US$250 000 (£180 000).

These are all people who want to reach a height where they can see the sky turn black and marvel at the Earth’s horizon as it curves away into the distance. Such a flight should also afford them about five minutes of weightlessness during which they will be allowed to float around inside Unity’s cabin.

It’s been a long road for Sir Richard to get to this point. He first announced his intention to make a space plane in 2004, with the belief he could start a commercial service by 2007.

But technical difficulties, including a fatal crash during a development flight in 2014, have made the space project one of the most challenging ventures of his career.

Space tourism is a sector being rekindled after a decade’s hiatus, and it’s about to get very competitive.

Throughout the 2000s, seven wealthy individuals paid to visit the International Space Station (ISS). But this adventurism, organised under the patronage of the Russian space agency, ceased in 2009.

Now, new initiatives abound. As well as Sir Richard’s approach, there are projects coming from Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and the California tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.

The Russians, too, are reprising their commercial flights to the ISS, and there are even those who want to launch private space stations for people to visit. Among these is Axiom, a company started by a former Nasa ISS programme manager.

(BBC)