Richard Branson goes to space: Virgin Galactic’s ‘Unity’ lands safely in New Mexico

Jul 11, 2021

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Sir Richard Branson and a crew of five successfully flew the Virgin Galactic space plane Unity 50 miles above the Earth, landing safely in Spaceport America, N.M., at around 11:30 a.m. EDT. The hour-long flight was the culmination of a quest to fly into space that began in 2004. Branson, two pilots and three mission specialists were flown eight miles above the Earth by the aircraft VMS Eve, named after Branson’s mother. The Unity then released from the VMS Eve and used rocket power to fly more than 50 miles above the Earth, where the crew experienced four minutes of weightlessness.

Branson had been planning space flights since 2010, but that first flight had been delayed repeatedly in the past 10 years, including the fatal crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo that killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury in October 2014.

Four years later, the company flew its first successful powered spaceship flight since the crash. In 2017, Branson said his company was closing in on this mission. “We are now just months away from Virgin Galactic sending people into space and Virgin Orbit placing satellites around the Earth,” he said then. Virgin Galactic flew successful flights in 2019 and in May 2021. On May 22, 2021, the FAA updated the company’s existing commercial space transportation operator license to allow it to fly customers to space.

The Virgin Galactic Unity crew experiences weightlessness. (Photo courtesy of Virgin Galactic)

The crew fulfilled a number of test objectives related to the cabin and customer experience, including evaluating the commercial customer cabin, the views of Earth from space, the conditions for conducting research and the effectiveness of the five-day pre-flight training program at Spaceport America.

This successful flight puts Virgin Galactic that much closer to its goal of offering the first commercial passenger space flights — at $250,000 a seat. The Virgin Galactic crew earned their astronaut wings after they met qualifications set by NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the FAA on the 50-mile boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space. Passengers who fly on Virgin Galactic trips will also earn astronaut wings.

Related: Virgin Galactic is getting closer to taking passengers into space

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