Sir Richard Branson on Sunday won the space race among his fellow billionaires, rocketing to an altitude of more than 53 miles above the Earth, considered space by U.S. agencies. In doing so, he became the first earthling to soar into space in his own vehicle.
In a roughly 14 minutes flight, Branson, 70, the founder of Virgin Airlines and now Virgin Galactic, beat out rival Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, who is planning to fly to space in a rocket just nine days from now.
“Ladies and gentlemen, there it is. More than half a century since the world rejoiced when humans first achieved spaceflight, Richard Branson fulfills his dream of experiencing space travel,” said comedian Stephen Colbert, who hosted coverage on Virgin’s website.
About 500 people, including Branson’s wife, children and grandchildren who had gathered at a runway in Truth or Consequences, N.M., cheered when the space plane landed.
The flight went like this:
The mothership WhiteKnightTwo took off with SpaceShipTwo — also known as VSS Unity — attached in between its twin fuselages. At about 46,000 feet, the mothership then released SpaceShipTwo, which ignited its rocket engines, climbing vertically. The spacecraft soared at Mach 3 — more than 2,300 miles per hour — to its apogee at about 282,000 feet (53.4 miles) high. Then it began its descent and the four passengers — who did not wear spacesuits or helmets and had no need to supplemental oxygen — experienced weightlessness for a couple minutes. SpaceShipTwo then re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere — causing a double sonic boom — and glided back to land at a runway.
Take a look at the flight path our SpaceShipTwo will take during our fifth supersonic powered test flight. The flight window opens again tomorrow. More info on our flight test program can be found here https://t.co/FPuuC0NHoM pic.twitter.com/riEiledjo6
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) February 21, 2019
Branson, who designated himself Astronaut 001, appeared ecstatic in a video feed from inside the raft, but much of his audio feed was garbled. In one audible part, he said: “Seventeen years of hard work to get us this far.”
The British billionaire was knighted for his contribution to entrepreneurship in 1999. He has become an adventurer, crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a hot-air balloon in 2017 and becoming the oldest person to kitesurf across the English Channel in 2012.
While fellow billionaire Elon Musk flew to New Mexico to witness the flight, Bezos was probably not too happy. Bezos’ Blue Origin even threw some shade at Branson, saying he didn’t really go to space.
“Only 4% of the world recognizes a lower limit of 80 km or 50 miles as the beginning of space. New Shepard flies above both boundaries. One of the many benefits of flying with Blue Origin,” they wrote on Twitter.
And they tossed out another dig: “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.”
Only 4% of the world recognizes a lower limit of 80 km or 50 miles as the beginning of space. New Shepard flies above both boundaries. One of the many benefits of flying with Blue Origin. pic.twitter.com/4EAzMfCmYT
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021
Blue Origin also dissed Branson’s SpaceShipTwo as just a high-altitude plane.
The Kármán line is named after Theodore von Kármán, a Hungarian American engineer and physicist who was active in aeronautics and astronautics who lived from 1881 to 1963. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), an international body for aeronautics and astronautics that sets standards and keeps records, defines the Kármán line as the altitude of 100 kilometers — or 62 miles (about 330,000 feet) — above Earth’s mean sea level.
But the U.S. puts the line of outer space at 50 miles. “It’s also roughly the altitude that was used by the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s when it gave out astronaut wings to test pilots who flew over 50 miles (80 km) high,” according to astronomy.com.
Then there’s this: “‘NASA Mission Control places the line at 76 miles (122 kilometers), because that is “the point at which atmospheric drag becomes noticeable,’ Bhavya Lal and Emily Nightingale of the Science and Technology Policy Institute write in a 2014 review article,” National Geographic reports. Bezos’ “rocket” won’t fly above that altitude when it launches later this month.