Just after 9:15 in the morning, the SpaceShipTwo detached from its mothership and dropped momentarily before its engine screamed to life and the vehicle swooped upward. On board, the passengers experienced up to three Gs of force from the burst of extreme acceleration and watched the blue sky fade into the star-speckled darkness of outer space. At the top of the flight path, more than 50 miles high, the vehicle was suspended in weightlessness for a few minutes, allowing the passengers to enjoy panoramic views of the Earth and space as SpaceShipTwo flipped onto its belly. It then deployed its feathering system, which curls the plane’s wings upward, mimicking the shape of a badminton shuttlecock, to turn the spaceship rightward as it flew back into the Earth’s thick atmosphere and glided back down to a runway landing.
This flight marked only the fourth test flight of the vehicle that reached the edge of space.
What this means
Branson’s flight — which came just nine days before Amazon bilionaire Jeff Bezos is slated to rocket into suborbital space aboard his own company’s spacecraft — is a landmark moment for the commercial space industry. The up-and-coming sector has for years been seeking to make suborbital space tourism (a relatively simple straight-up-and-down flight, as opposed to orbiting the Earth for longer periods) a viable business with the aim of allowing thousands of people to experience the adrenaline rush and sweeping views of our home planet that such flights can offer.
Branson and Bezos are situated to become direct competitors in that industry, each offering tickets to wealthy customers for brief rides to the upper atmosphere aboard supersonic, rocket-powered spacecraft.
Virgin Galactic plans to conduct just one more test flight before it will begin flying paying customers. More than 600 people have reserved tickets priced at $200,000 to $250,000 so far. The company is expected to reopen ticket sales soon, though at a higher price point.
But whether or not Virgin Galactic will really be the “first” commercially operational suborbital space company is not yet clear. Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, appeared poised to put its founder in space before Branson, until Virgin Galactic made the surprise announcement earlier this month that he would be on the very next test flight, a departure from the company’s earlier plans.
Bezos’ flight, slated for July 20, could kick off the company’s commercial operations sooner than that, and one of his fellow passengers on the flight is a paying customer, having won a ticket through a charity auction for the price of $28 million. The company has not yet begun selling tickets to the public, however, nor has it set a specific date for when it plans to do so.
Neither company is expected to offer tickets that are affordable to the average American. Branson did tease a big “announcement” about his effort to “democratize space” ahead of the flight. But he revealed Sunday only that Virgin Galactic would be holding a “sweepstakes” for two free tickets, along with a tour of the facility from the winners from Branson himself.
How Virgin Galactic got here
The company refurbished the building to include a lounge and other amenities that ticket holders will be able to use before their brief journey to the edge of space.
Virgin Galactic’s development program has endured a series of setbacks, including a catastrophic accident during a test flight in 2014 that left a co-pilot dead and the pilot badly injured after the SpaceShipTwo’s feathering system was prematurely deployed, ripping the spacecraft apart. The company has since parted ways with its manufacturing partner and says it has worked to enhance SpaceShipTwo with additional automated safeguards.
Branson said ahead of Sunday’s test flight that he was anxious to join the pilots and test engineers who’ve already flown on SpaceShipTwo because he felt it demonstrated a crucial vote of confidence.
“You’ve got to remember that Virgin Galactic has people on every spaceflight… The fact that I’m willing to fly with those people shows confidence,” Branson told CNN Business’ Rachel Crane earlier this month. “I think the least the founder of the company can do is go up there and fly with his people.”