Jul 11, 2021 - Science

Richard Branson takes flight with his space company Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic
The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity returns to earth on July 11. Photo: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Billionaire Richard Branson flew on a suborbital mission to the edge of space with his company, Virgin Galactic, on Sunday, beating fellow space billionaire Jeff Bezos to the punch in the process.

Why it matters: This very public moment of success could help buoy the company as it pushes to begin commercial service next year and attract new customers.

Driving the news: Branson, his three fellow crew members and two pilots, took flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico at about 10:40 a.m. ET.

  • The six-person crew — ensconced within their Unity space plane — were lofted thousands of feet above Earth by their carrier aircraft before the plane was dropped and its rocket engine kicked on.
  • At Unity's highest altitude — over 50 miles above Earth's surface — the crew was able to experience weightlessness and see the planet against the blackness of space before gliding back in for a landing.
  • "Being up there and looking back down has to be one of the most amazing feelings, and we can't wait for more people to experience it," Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said during the webcast.
Richard Branson reacts on board Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity after reaching the edge of space.
Branson reacts on board Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity after reaching the edge of space. Still from a video photo via Reuters

Between the lines: The webcast of the launch itself was pretty unique in the world of space launch livestreams.

  • Instead of mostly focusing on the technical elements of the launch, Virgin Galactic's livestream was co-hosted by Stephen Colbert and came complete with plenty of jokes.
  • The webcast effectively served as an advertisement for anyone who might be interested in flying on the system at some point in the future.

The big picture: Virgin Galactic is in direct competition with Bezos' Blue Origin for a piece of the suborbital space tourism market.

  • Bezos is expected to fly on his company's system for its first human flight on July 20.
  • Elon Musk's SpaceX, on the other hand, isn't interested in suborbital space tourism.
  • Instead, his company has created a more powerful system that sends astronauts to the International Space Station, with plans to launch a fully-civilian crew in September.

The intrigue: The FAA is currently barred from creating regulations governing the safety of those who choose to fly on commercial spaceflight systems like these until at least 2023.

  • That moratorium was put in place in order to allow the industry to quite literally get off the ground before regulators come in.
  • At the moment, these passengers fly under what's known as a regime of "informed consent" where private companies responsible for these systems need to make the risks clear before the flight.
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