Billionaire and founder of Virgin Richard Branson has reached the edge of space in a Virgin Galactic spaceplane signaling the start of a new era in commercial space travel.
Virgin documented Branson’s flight in a livestream video showing pre-recorded footage of the company’s founder riding his bicycle to Spaceport America and signing himself in as ‘Astronaut 001’ prior to launch.
From inside the cabin near the apogee of the flight, Branson recorded a message “to all you kids down there”.
“I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars,” Branson said as his fellow passengers floated around him.
“Now I’m an adult in a spaceship with lots of other wonderful adults, looking down to our beautiful, beautiful earth.
“To the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do.”
Virgin Galactic said around 600 customers from 58 countries have signed up to go on its short one-hour flight into the stratosphere.
Company CEO Michael Colglazier called it a “landmark moment for the new commercial space industry”.
“Today we’re endeavouring to open access to space for all,” he said.
“Can you imagine being up there and looking back down?
“It has to be one of the most amazing feelings and we can’t wait for more people to experience it.”
Tickets are estimated to cost around US$250,000 and Elon Musk – SpaceX CEO and friend of Branson’s – is reportedly among those willing to reach into their wallets for the experience.
SpaceX is planning its own commercial spaceflight operations which will see four civilians launched into orbit aboard the company’s Dragon craft later this year.
Four extremely wealthy men were also willing to pay $55 million each to charter a SpaceX flight up to the International Space Station where they will stay for eight days next year.
The edge of space
The space tourism market has suddenly become competitive after years of research and development from the likes of SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.
Bezos is scheduled to reach space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shephard spacecraft next week and would have been the first of the billionaire trio to leave Earth’s atmosphere if Branson hadn’t pushed his own test flight forward.
The company, which Bezos said he wanted to spend more time with after stepping down as Amazon CEO, was critical of Virgin Galactic’s space tourism offerings claiming its crew didn’t technically reach space.
Branson reached an altitude of around 86km on his Virgin Galactic flight which, depending on how you measure it, is not technically space.
US authorities, including the military and NASA, say space begins at 80km up, and recognises anyone who crosses that altitude as an astronaut.
But other international bodies like the Swiss Fédération Aéronautique Internationale – the governing body for air sports – says space doesn’t officially begin until the Kármán line at 100km.
“From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin said.
“For 96 per cent of the world’s population, space begins 100km up at the internationally recognised Kármán line.”
On next week’s flight, Bezos will fly with his brother and a person who paid US$28 million at auction for a seat on New Shephard.