‘DAWN OF A NEW SPACE AGE’

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Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson carries Astronaut Sirisha Bandla on his shoulders while celebrating their successful spaceflight aboard VSS Unity Sunday at Spaceport New Mexico. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SPACEPORT AMERICA – New Mexico took center stage Sunday when Sir Richard Branson made history with his successful flight from Spaceport America to the edge of space aboard his own passenger rocket ship.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity took off from the spaceport about 8:40 a.m. attached to the underbelly of the company’s mothership, VMS Eve, with Branson, two pilots and three other crew members strapped in the cabin. About 45 minutes later, the rocket broke away from Eve, fired up its motors, and shot into space, reaching about 282,000 feet, or nearly 54 miles up.

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VSS Unity detaches from the mothership during Virgin Galactic’s launch from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico on Sunday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal.)

The Unity accelerated to three times the speed of sound before reaching space, where Branson and the cabin crew floated in microgravity for about three minutes while taking in spectacular views of the Earth’s curvature below.

The Unity then gently descended back to Earth, gliding through the skies above the New Mexico desert before landing safely on the spaceport runway about 9:40 a.m.

Soon after, Branson and the other crew members climbed on a stage set up on the tarmac to share his experience with hundreds of invited guests and reporters from across the globe who traveled to the spaceport to observe Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed passenger flight. Branson called it a “magical” experience.

“I’ve dreamt of this moment since I was a kid,” Branson said. “But honestly, nothing can prepare you for it.”

In a subsequent news conference with local, national and international reporters, Branson said the flight surpassed his “wildest dreams.”

“It’s impossible to describe what it’s like going to Mach 3 in seven or eight seconds,” Branson said. “As you go into space, the views are breathtaking.”

And the experience in microgravity?

“I unbuckle and the next thing I’m seeing are three people floating below me,” Branson said. “I’ll never be able to do it justice. It’s indescribably beautiful.”

Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier called Sunday’s flight a “landmark achievement” for the company and a “historic moment” for the emerging commercial space industry.

“This is a morning we’ll remember for the rest of our lives,” Colglazier told launch attendees. “It’s been years in the making.”

Branson also announced a Virgin spaceflight sweepstakes Sunday, the winner of which will get a personal tour of Spaceport America led by Branson himself, and two tickets to fly to space.

“Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” Branson said to cheers.

Years in the making

It’s been 17 years since Virgin Galactic first agreed in 2005 to establish its first base of operations at Spaceport America, following a commitment by then-Gov. Bill Richardson for the state to construct the facility. The spaceport officially opened in 2011, with Virgin Galactic as its anchor tenant.

The company, which remains headquartered at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California, inaugurated its three-story “Gateway to Space” operations at the spaceport in summer 2019. And it flew the mothership Eve to New Mexico in the fall of 2019, followed by the Unity in February 2020.

Sunday’s flight was the fourth time the Unity has reached space, following its last launch into suborbit on May 22 with two pilots but no crew members. The company plans one more test flight later this summer, followed by another flight in the fall that will carry four passengers from the Italian Air Force to conduct experiments in microgravity and provide astronaut training.

It plans to begin commercial service for paying passengers early next year, after a four-month hiatus for upgrades and maintenance on both the Unity and the mothership.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who attended Sunday’s launch, said the 17-year wait and roughly $250 million New Mexico spent to build the spaceport were well worth it.

“We expect a return – a healthy return,” Lujan Grisham told reporters. “The sky is no longer the limit.”

Elon Musk walks near the Spaceport America terminal before the launch. His company SpaceX plans to launch four passengers in September on a flight around Earth. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Branson’s flight generated unprecedented publicity for the spaceport and for New Mexico in general, the governor added, especially since Virgin Galactic live-streamed Sunday’s events online though its website and YouTube for a global audience.

“We are on the map,” Lujan Grisham said. “Ten million people will see this iconic flight and get to know New Mexico. It’s happening in front of the entire world.”

Rick Homans, who served as economic development secretary under former Gov. Richardson and played a key role in original efforts to bring Virgin Galactic to New Mexico, said Branson’s flight marks a key milestone for the whole commercial space industry.

“It’s the beginning of the space revolution,” Homans said.

The remote area where the spaceport is now located – about 45 miles north of Las Cruces – was just barren desert 15 years ago, Homans added.

“It was a greenfield that cost $250 million to develop,” he said. “… But the attention of the entire globe is now focused on Spaceport America, and this investment will pay off in the years and decades to come. It was worth it to get to where we are today.”

Making history

Branson’s flight on Sunday makes him the first spaceship-company founder to fly to space on his own rocket with a crew.

Billionaire Jeff Bezos will be next. He plans to fly July 20 from West Texas with three passengers aboard the New Shepard rocket, kicking off commercial service for paying passengers by Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin.

And Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, plans to launch four passengers in September on a three-day orbital flight around Earth.

Hundreds of people traveled from around the world to southern New Mexico to see Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity fly to space Sunday morning. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Branson wasn’t expected to fly on the Unity until later this summer, but the company unexpectedly announced July 1 that he would board the Unity with the Virgin crew in advance of Bezos’ flight.

Still, Branson insists the decision to accelerate his trip to space was unrelated to the planned flights of his competitors.

In fact, Branson said Bezos sent him goodwill wishes for his flight on Sunday. And Elon Musk actually attended Sunday’s event at the spaceport.

“It really wasn’t a race,” Branson told reporters on Sunday. “I’m just delighted everything went so fantastically well. I wish Jeff the absolute best during his flight.”

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