Billionaire Richard Branson’s space company, Virgin Galactic, launched his spaceplane VSS Unity from Spaceport America in New Mexico early Sunday morning. With the flight, which took Branson and his team to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, Branson became the first individual to travel on a space vehicle manufactured by his own company, MIT Technology Review reported.
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Branson was joined by five crew members, including three Virgin Galactic employees: chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and VP of government affairs and research Sirisha Bandla, Business Insider reported. Pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci flew the spaceplane, taking it to 50,000 feet, approximately 10,000 to 15,000 feet higher than the commercial airliner cruising altitude of around 35,000 feet.
Selling commercial flights to the edge of space is one of Branson’s goals for Virgin Galactic. For the price of $250,000, passengers will enjoy a 90-minute ride that will include several minutes of weightlessness and a breathtaking suborbital view of Earth from just below the Karman line, the invisible boundary commonly accepted as the edge of space.
Although such a luxury experience may not be accessible to most people, roughly 650 celebrities, including Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio, have already signed up for flights, expected to launch later this year, according to MIT Technology Review.
Branson had been expected to travel on one of these future flights, but surprisingly pushed the date up, allegedly as a way to beat Amazon founder and fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos to space, according to MIT Technology Review.
Although near-space travel may not be accessible to the average person for many years, space industry analysts say the trip holds significance for the future of space tourism. “The billionaire aspect of this space race is an unfortunate distraction,” space industry analyst Caleb Williams told the MIT publication. “The much more important part is we are democratizing access [to space]. This is a coming-of-age moment.”
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