Richard Branson finally got his trip to space on Sunday.
It has been a very long wait for Mr. Branson, the irreverent, 70-year-old British billionaire who leads a galaxy of Virgin companies. In 2004, he founded Virgin Galactic to provide adventurous tourists with rides on rocket-powered planes to the edge of space and back.
At the time, he thought commercial service would begin in two to three years. Instead, close to 17 years have passed. Virgin Galactic says it still has three more test flights to conduct, including the one on Sunday, before it can be ready for paying passengers.
Cars drove Mr. Branson and his crewmates to the plane on Sunday, and the flight took off on Sunday morning around 10:40 a.m. Eastern time from Spaceport America in New Mexico, about 180 miles south of Albuquerque.
The space plane separated from the carrier ship around 11:25 a.m. and ignited its engine for about 60 seconds, carrying Mr. Branson and the crew into space. Video footage from the live stream showed him and the crew experiencing weightlessness.
Minutes later, the plane began its return to Earth in a glide, and soon landed safely on the spaceport’s runway. Mr. Branson, speaking into a camera in the plane’s cabin during the glide, called it “an experience of a lifetime.”
More than an hour later, a giddy Mr. Branson took a stage with his fellow crewmates.
“The whole thing was magical,” he said.
Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut whose performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” from the space station went viral some years ago, then pinned wings on the crewmates’ flight suits that officially designate them as astronauts.
The rocket plane, a type called SpaceShipTwo, is about the size of an executive jet. In addition to the two pilots, there can be up to four people in the cabin. The particular SpaceShipTwo that flew on Sunday is named V.S.S. Unity.
To get off the ground, Unity was carried by a larger plane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet. There, Unity was released, and the rocket plane’s motor ignited. The acceleration made people on board feel a force up to 3.5 times their normal weight on the way to an altitude of more than 50 miles.
At the top of the arc, those on board were able to see the blackness of space as well as the curve of Earth from the plane’s windows. They also got out of their seats and experienced about four minutes of apparent weightlessness. Fifty miles up, Earth’s downward gravitational pull is essentially just as strong as it is on the ground; rather, the passengers were falling at the same pace as the plane around them.
The two tail booms at the back of the space plane then rotated up to a “feathered” configuration that created more drag and stability, allowing the plane to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere more gently. This configuration SpaceShipTwo like a badminton shuttlecock, which always falls with the pointy side oriented down, than a plane.
Still, the forces felt by the passengers on the way down were greater than on the way up, reaching six times the force of gravity.
Once the plane was back in the atmosphere, the tail booms rotated back down, and the plane glided to a landing.
The pilots are David Mackay and Michael Masucci.
In addition to Mr. Branson, three Virgin Galactic employees joined the flight to evaluate how the experience will be for future paying customers. They were Beth Moses, the chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.
On Sunday’s flight, Ms. Bandla was to conduct an experiment from the University of Florida that looks at how plants react to the changing conditions — particularly the swings in gravity — during the flight, part of research that could aid growing food on future long-duration space missions.
In this billionaire space race, slipping the surly bonds of Earth apparently isn’t enough — not without some glitz and a bevy of celebrities.
Richard Branson combined private spaceflight with show business on Sunday as he completed his highly-anticipated Virgin Galactic flight high above the New Mexico desert. He enlisted “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert to introduce segments of a live streamed production, which was delayed around 90 minutes by the weather.
Mr. Colbert played up a humorous rivalry he has cultivated with the entrepreneur on his talk shows over the years, and joked about some of Mr. Branson’s failed business ventures, like Virgin Cola.
“Seriously, he lost money selling sugar water,” Mr. Colbert quipped. “All aboard.”
Later in the production, the Grammy-winning artist Khalid gave a performance in front of a small crowd on an outdoor stage at Spaceport America, which featured the release of his new song, “New Normal.” The musician, appearing in a sequined jacket as machines sprayed mist on a stage, performed three songs.
“Look how far we’ve came just as humanity,” he said during the live steam.
Around two hours before lifting off, Mr. Branson shared a photo of himself with a shoeless Elon Musk, a billionaire rival in the private conquest of space.
“Great to start the morning with a friend,” Mr. Branson said on Twitter.
Even Mr. Branson’s arrival at Spaceport America wasn’t lacking for showmanship. Flanked by two white Range Rovers, the British mogul pedaled to the site at daybreak on a bicycle, a video posted by Mr. Branson showed. Once there, other members of the flight’s crew greeted him and joked that he was late.
In England, where he was knighted by Prince Charles in 2000, the spotlight did not entirely belong to Mr. Branson, however. Mr. Branson’s space odyssey coincided with the men’s tennis final at Wimbledon on Sunday — historically billed for U.S. television audiences as “breakfast at Wimbledon.”
The flight also came just hours before England was set to take on Italy in the soccer finals of Euro 2020, which has drawn the collective attention of many people in Britain. Some on social media suggested that Mr. Branson’s timing was less than ideal.
The live stream production was not without its hiccups. The show’s hosts tried to interview Mr. Branson when the plane reached space, but the audio feed wasn’t working. After re-entry, many of his words were garbled as he tried to describe what it was like to visit space.
Founding a space exploration company was perhaps an unsurprising step for Mr. Branson, who has made a career — and a fortune estimated at $6 billion — building flashy upstart businesses that he promotes with a showman’s flair.
What became his Virgin business empire began with a small record shop in central London in the 1970s before Mr. Branson parlayed it into Virgin Records, the home of acts like the Sex Pistols, Peter Gabriel and more. In 1984, he co-founded what became Virgin Atlantic to challenge British Airways in the field of long-haul passenger air travel. Other Virgin-branded airlines followed.
The Virgin Group branched out into other businesses as well, including a mobile-phone carrier, a passenger railroad and a line of hotels. Not all have performed flawlessly: Both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia filed for insolvency during the pandemic last year, while few today remember his ventures into soft drinks, cosmetics or lingerie.
Virgin Galactic was announced to much fanfare in 2004 with the promise of creating a space tourism company with style. Virgin Orbit, a spinoff of that company that launches small satellites from a jumbo jet, came 13 years later. Virgin Orbit, now separate from Virgin Galactic, has carried payloads to orbit twice this year.
The space tourism company is of a piece with Mr. Branson’s penchant for highflying pursuits like skydiving and hot-air ballooning. And unlike many of the Virgin Group’s businesses that are actually minority investments or simply licensees, Virgin Galactic has been a major focus of Mr. Branson’s. He raised $1 billion for the space companies from Saudi Arabia, only to call off the deal in 2018 after the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And in a regulatory filing, the company said it had benefited from his “personal network to generate new inquiries and reservation sales, as well as referrals from existing reservation holders.”
“We’ve spent 14 years working on our space program,” Mr. Branson said in a Bloomberg Television interview in 2018. “And it’s been tough, and space is tough — it’s rocket science.” He added that he had hoped to travel on one of Virgin Galactic’s flights by the end of that year.
Virgin Galactic joined the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 after merging with a publicly traded investment fund, giving it a potent source of new funds to compete with deep-pocket competitors — and publicity, with Mr. Branson marking its trading debut at the exchange in one of the company’s flight suits.
But while Virgin Galactic has sought to keep pace with the likes of Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin, Mr. Branson has downplayed any rivalry between the two. “I know nobody will believe me when I say it, but honestly, there isn’t,” he told The Today Show earlier this week.
The federal government does not impose regulations for the safety of passengers on a spacecraft like Virgin Galactic’s. Unlike commercial passenger jetliners, the rocket plane has not been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Indeed, the F.A.A. is prohibited by law from issuing any such requirements until 2023.
The rationale is that emerging space companies like Virgin Galactic need a “learning period” to try out designs and procedures and that too much regulation too soon would stifle innovation that would lead to better, more efficient designs.
Future passengers will have to sign forms acknowledging “informed consent” to the risks, similar to what you sign if you go skydiving or bungee jumping.
What the F.A.A. does regulate is ensuring safety for people not on the plane — that is, if anything does go wrong, that the risk to the “uninvolved public” on ground is minuscule.
The Virgin Galactic design already has an imperfect safety record. The company’s first space plane, the V.S.S. Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014 when the co-pilot moved a lever too early during the flight, allowing the tail booms to rotate when they should have remained rigid. The Enterprise broke apart, and the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed. The pilot, Peter Siebold, survived after parachuting out of the plane.
The controls were redesigned so that the tail booms cannot be unlocked prematurely.
In 2019, Virgin Galactic came close to another catastrophe when a new metal thermal protection film was improperly installed, covering up holes that allow air trapped inside a horizontal stabilizer — the small horizontal wing on the tail of a plane — to flow out as the craft rises into the rarefied layers of the atmosphere. Instead, the pressure of the trapped air ruptured a seal along one of the stabilizers.
The mishap was revealed earlier this year in the book “Test Gods” by Nicholas Schmidle, a staff writer at The New Yorker. The book quotes Todd Ericson, then the vice president for safety and testing at Virgin Galactic, saying, “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and kill three people.”
More than 600 people have signed up for flights. Virgin Galactic originally charged $200,000 a seat and then raised the price to $250,000 before suspending sales after the 2014 crash. The company has not said what it will charge when it resumes sales, but the expectation is that the cost will be higher.
During earlier test flights, the Virgin Galactic plane carried scientific experiments. One from University of Florida scientists, for example, tested imaging technologies that capture the reaction of plants — which genes are turned on and off — to the stresses of spaceflight.
In the future, scientists will be able to accompany their experiments. On this flight, Ms. Bandla of Virgin Galactic will perform an experiment that requires handling several tubes during the trip.
The Italian Air Force has purchased seats on future flights for scientific research, as has the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. It will be much easier, faster and cheaper to fly experiments on suborbital flights than to get them to the International Space Station.
The United States Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration put the boundary of outer space at 50 miles. The F.A.A. has granted astronaut wings to Virgin Galactic crew members who flew on earlier test flights.
Internationally, however, the altitude that marks the start of space is usually set at 100 kilometers, or just over 62 miles, what is known as the Karman line.
SpaceShipTwo was originally intended to rise above the 62-mile altitude, but difficulties during the development of the motor led to a less powerful but more reliable design that cannot propel the spacecraft that high.
On July 20, another billionaire is scheduled to take another rocket to the edge of space. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, founded his rocket company, Blue Origin, with a vision of millions of people living and working in space in the future.
But the company’s first vehicle, New Shepard, has much more modest ambitions. Like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, it is designed to take people on short suborbital trips providing about four minutes of weightlessness.
Unlike SpaceShipTwo, New Shepard is a more traditional rocket, launched upward before the capsule detaches from a booster rocket. The booster returns to make a vertical landing, much as the larger Falcon 9 rockets operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX do, while the capsule descends back to the ground under a parachute.
New Shepard also rises above the 62-mile-high Karman line.
Blue Origin highlighted this fact, and several other features of New Shepard, in a tweet on Friday that compared the spacecraft with Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.
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. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021
Mr. Bezos later wished Mr. Branson and Virgin Galactic “a successful and safe flight tomorrow,” in a post on his Instagram account. He added, “Best of luck!”
TV and film projects in orbit are attracting the greatest attention so far. In the year ahead, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and a Russian broadcaster, Channel One, are behind an effort in the year ahead to send Yulia Peresild, an actress, and Klim Shipenko, a filmmaker, to the space station to make the movie “Challenge.” Ms. Peresild will play a surgeon sent to orbit to save the life of a Russian astronaut.
They will fly on a Russian Soyuz rocket. So will a Japanese fashion entrepreneur, Yusaku Maezawa, and Yozo Hirano, a production assistant. Their 12-day trip, scheduled to launch in December, is a prelude for a more ambitious around-the-moon trip Mr. Maezawa hopes to embark on in a few years in the giant SpaceX Starship rocket that is currently in development. His trip to the space station is being arranged by Space Adventures, a company that arranged eight similar visits for private citizens between 2001 and 2009.
The Discovery Channel has announced a reality TV show, “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” in which the winner gets to travel to the International Space Station. The eight-episode show, in development, is to run next year.
SpaceX has a couple of missions in the next 12 months that are scheduled to take private citizens to orbit. One is scheduled to launch in September and will carry Jared Isaacman, the billionaire founder of Shift4 Payments, and three other amateur astronauts, on a trip to orbit. A second, booked by the company Axiom Space, will carry three wealthy individuals and an astronaut working for the company to the International Space Station.