Sunday July 11 was a landmark day in the history of space exploration. Sir Richard Branson and his civilian crew on Virgin Galactic flight Unity-22 reached 50 miles above the Earth’s surface, the border of space as defined by NASA, in a successful first flight. This flight ushers in the long-awaited dawn of space tourism, a venture to bring humans to space for recreational purposes.
Launching from Branson’s specially-built Spaceport America in the deserts of New Mexico, the Virgin Galactic spacecraft is designed primarily with the passenger experience in mind. Whereas other launches take off vertically from the ground, Virgin Galactic’s flights start more like a commercial airline on a runway. This is meant to be more comfortable and less jarring for passengers. A carrier airplane, dubbed Eve after Branson’s mother, brings the rocket ship off the ground from this runway takeoff.
Once at a high enough altitude, Eve releases the spacecraft Unity, which then fires its rocket engines to get to space. At the highest point in the flight, while the passengers are playing in zero gravity, Unity does a backflip, angling its windows towards Earth to provide them with spectacular views. In its descent, Unity acts like a glider, landing back on a runway, similar to how the NASA Space Shuttles landed. But if you’re hoping to take this flight, be aware that the price tag is pretty hefty: $250,000.
Unity also carries a small science payload to test the concept of “human-tended payloads,” where investigators bring their science with them to space. Crew member Sirisha Bandla is operating an experiment to capture snapshots of plant chemistry during the transition into and out of microgravity.
Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004, is one of a group of billionaire-led endeavors into spaceflight that have been in development for decades. While Elon Musk’s SpaceX has focused more on interplanetary travel, Blue Origin (founded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos) is currently Virgin Galactic’s main space tourism competitor. In fact, Branson even moved up this Virgin Galactic launch date in order to beat Bezos into space, a billionaire space race that has been criticized by many.
Branson’s dream of making space accessible is an admirable goal, the stuff of sci-fi stories. Although space isn’t yet available for everyone, today’s events are a first step towards that dream.