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Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson wins space race

July 11, 2021

The 70-year-old British billionaire reached space nine days before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' planned flight. But Bezos' company said Branson was simply not flying high enough.

Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity
Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane ascended for about an hour Image: Joe Skipper/REUTERS

British businessman Richard Branson has gone where no billionaire has gone before by reaching space on board a Virgin Galactic vessel on Sunday.

The winged rocket ship took off at around 1440 UTC after its initial start time was pushed back due to bad weather at its New Mexico launchpad.

The space plane detached from the mother ship at an altitude of about 8 miles (13 kilometers) and fired its engine. It reached the edge of space at about 53 miles (88 kilometers) up. 

The crew successfully landed after an hour-long trip. 

Branson was joined by two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, as well as Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett, and Sirisha Bandla, a research operations and government affairs vice president. 

Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic team
Richard Branson, third from the right, headed into space with five other team membersImage: Virgin Galactic/dpa/picture alliance

What did Branson say? 

"Welcome to the dawn of a new space age," Branson said on Twitter, with a photo from inside his space ship. 

Branson told crowds at the launchpad after his trip that after 17 years of work he finally got to enjoy testing "the customer experience." His company plans to start commercial operations next year.

In a short video released on Twitter prior to the flight, Branson said his goal was "to turn the dream of space travel into a reality — for my grandchildren, for your grandchildren, for everyone."

Billionaires' space race?

The 70-year-old entrepreneur behind Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Records has beaten Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in the ultimate space race between some of the world's richest men.

Bezos plans to travel on July 20 on his own New Shepard suborbital rocket ship built by his Blue Origin firm. The Amazon founder is set to pilot the spacecraft himself.

Jeff Bezoswears a jacket with a Blue Origin logo at a Texas launch site
The world's richest man, Jeff Bezos, is set to fly to space nine days after BransonImage: Blue Origin/ZumaPress/picture alliance

Tesla CEO Elon Musk also has ambitions to travel to outer space and eventually Mars, although his timetable is less clear. However, Musk's SpaceX project is expected to carry civilians into space as early as September this year.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk
Space X's Elon Musk has plans to build a city on MarsImage: John Raoux/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Hours before the launch, Branson tweeted a photo of him with Musk. "Big day ahead. Great to start the morning with a friend," Branson said.  

Did Branson's plane fly high enough?

Ahead of the flight, Bezos' Blue Origin company pointedly noted that Branson was not set to cross what most countries consider to be the border of outer space.

But Bezos himself wished Branson "a successful and safe flight" on Instagram.

Branson's VSS Unity climbed to over 80 kilometers, which the US Air Force and NASA consider to be the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and outer space. But the World Air Sports Federation, known by its French acronym FAI, is the world governing body for air sports and defines human spaceflight differently. 

Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic crew members enter the company's passenger rocket plane.
US space agency NASA and the US Air Force both define an astronaut as anyone who has flown higher than 80 kilometersImage: Virgin Galactic/REUTERS

The Lausanne-based organization defines outer space as 100 kilometers above Earth's mean sea level, the so-called Karman Line, 12 kilometers higher than Branson is going to travel.

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith dismissed Virgin Galactic’s approach as "a very different experience" because "they’re not flying above the Karman line."

How much money is there in space tourism?

That controversy has not dissuaded people from snapping up tickets for the first space tourism flights.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber are among the 600 customers to have stumped up for the $250,000 (€210,000) seats.

Branson founded Virgin Galactic 17 years ago, with it now attempting to finish development testing this year so it can begin flying space tourism passengers in early 2022.

He, Musk and Bezos have pumped billions into their respective projects, but this could prove to be a canny investment.

Switzerland's UBS predicts the value of the space tourism market will hit $3 billion annually by 2030.

fb,jf/jlw (AP, AFP, dpa)