Richard Branson’s Excellent Adventure to Become an Astronaut

Richard Branson’s Excellent Adventure to Become an Astronaut

Billionaire businessman Richard Branson got his wish today, flying to space and winning astronaut wings from his company, Virgin Galactic. The airplane-launched Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity took Branson, two pilots, and three other company employees above the 50-mile threshold that the FAA uses as the line of demarcation between air and space. Clearly thrilled with the experience, the 70-year-old Branson nonetheless indicated this may be his last adventure.

VSS Unity, attached to Virgin Mother Ship (VMS) Eve, took off from Spaceport America, New Mexico at about 8:40 am Mountain Time (10:40 am Eastern). This was Unity’s 22nd flight, hence the Unity-22 designation, although it was only the fourth time it traversed the air/space line.

After climbing to about 45,000 feet, VMS Eve released VSS Unity at approximately 9:25 am MT (11:25 am ET) and it fired its rocket engine to ascend to an altitude of 53.5 miles before gliding back to Earth. Landing was about 9:39 am MT (11:39 am ET).

Virgin Galactic provided a livestream of the flight, although communications were choppy and the best quality video of Branson aboard the spaceship was released after landing. But his message was clear — don’t give up on your dreams.

Indeed, this day was a long time coming. Branson created Virgin Galactic in 2004 with expectations that routine passenger flights to space were only a few years away. Progress was slow, however, and a fatal tragedy in 2014 during a flight test caused more delays.

Joining him on VSS Unity were pilots Dave Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci; Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor; Colin Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations.  Mackay, Masucci and Moses had made the trip before, but it was a brand new experience for Branson, Bennett and Bandla.

Unity-22 crew (L-R): David Mackay, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla, Michael Masucci. Credit: Virgin Galactic

During the flight Bandla conducted a plant growth experiment for scientists at the University of Florida. The research is supported by NASA.

NASA has a very long history of doing research on suborbital rockets to obtain a few minutes of microgravity. The agency is taking advantage of opportunities presented by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin not only to take autonomous payloads along for the ride, but to fly scientists with the experiments. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute was selected by NASA last fall to fly on a future Virgin Galactic flight as its first Suborbital Crew (SubC) on a commercial spaceflight.

The date for his flight has not been set. In fact, although Virgin Galactic’s business is flying people to space, it is not quite ready to do that commercially yet.

In announcing a partnership today with the charity organization Omaze where people can contribute money for a chance to win two tickets on a future Virgin Galactic flight, the deal is to be “on one of the FIRST Virgin Galactic commercial spaceflights” that is “estimated to take place in early 2022.”

Branson’s charity connection follows in the footsteps of Jared Isaacman and his Inspiration4 mission that is raising funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Jeff Bezos who auctioned a seat on the first crewed flight of his New Shepard rocket for $28 million that will go to his Club for the Future Foundation to get kids interested in STEM education. Branson picked Space for Humanity, but one must donate through Omaze by September 1, 2021 to enter the drawing. Funds raised actually go to Charities Aid Foundation America “which then will grant the donations, minus the experience fees and costs, to Space for Humanity (the ‘Designated Grantee’).”

Charitable contributions and scientific experiments aside, Branson’s flight today is widely viewed as nothing short of stealing Bezos’s thunder. On May 5, Bezos announced he would fly to space on that first crewed flight of New Shepard and set the date as July 20, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. At the time, Virgin Galactic had indicated plans for more test flights before putting Branson on board, but suddenly Branson announced he would fly today, nine days before Bezos.

Branson came across as churlish. Blue Origin retorted by arguing that Branson really would not be in space because it begins at 62 miles not 50 miles. (The FAA uses 50 miles and it is the agency that regulates U.S. commercial spaceflight, but 62 miles is used internationally). Public reaction to the spat was pretty negative and today the two were gracious. At the post-flight press conference Branson insisted there never was a race and wished Bezos well. In turn, Bezos congratulated Branson via Instagram and said he looks forward to joining the club soon.

Branson and Bezos are two of the three mega-billionaires running space companies right now. The third is Elon Musk.  He and Branson are long-standing friends and he was at Spaceport America for today’s flight.

Branson was asked during the post-flight press conference what his next adventure will be, but he replied that he did not think he could put his family through another one so will “give it a rest for the time being.”

He and the others on the Unity-22 crew were asked what mementoes they brought with them today. In a touching moment, Bandla revealed that she brought a pin designed and made by Matthew Isakowitz, a highly respected and warmly regarded member of the commercial spaceflight community who passed away in 2017 at the age of 30 (shown in this undated photo posted by Keith Cowing at NASAWatch).

Bandla was among a group of friends and colleagues who established the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship program in his memory to inspire a new generation of commercial spaceflight leaders. She said she would give the pin to Matthew’s family. Steve Isakowitz, President and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, is Matthew’s father.


This article has been updated.

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