Billionaire Richard Branson took off this Sunday into space from New Mexico, in the southwestern US, to spend a few minutes in zero-gravity aboard a ship of his own company, Virgin Galactic, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream.
This Briton seeks to propel the fledgling space tourism industry. But he also surpasses his competitor, the American Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, snatching him the title of the first billionaire to cross the space border thanks to the ship of a company that he founded.
A huge transport plane made a horizontal takeoff from Spaceport America base around 8:40 a.m. local time (2:40 p.m. GMT) and will ascend for about an hour to an altitude of 15 kilometers, before releasing the space plane it carries, the VSS Unity.
Takeoff had been postponed due to weather conditions.
“A great day ahead. It’s great to start the morning with a friend,” Branson tweeted two hours before takeoff alongside a photo of him and SpaceX chief Elon Musk posing barefoot in a kitchen.
Musk, a great rival of Bezos, had indicated on Saturday that he would be present at the event.
“I feel good, excited and prepared,” added Branson, who will have a very precise mission during his trip: to test and evaluate the experience that his future clients will have.
Other billionaires have already been in space in the 2000s, but aboard Russian rockets.
On this occasion, the VSS Unity spacecraft – a copy of the SpaceShipTwo model – is attached to the carrier plane. In it are two pilots and four passengers on board: Richard Branson and three employees of his company.
At a height of about 15 kilometers, the spacecraft – the size of a private jet – will untie and fire its engine for a supersonic ascent to a height of more than 80 kilometers, the limit set in the United States for the space frontier.
Once the engine is switched off, passengers will be able to detach from their seats and float for a few minutes in weightlessness, admiring the curvature of the Earth from one of the 12 cabin windows.
After reaching a peak altitude of about 90 km, the spacecraft will glide down.
The eccentric 70-year-old billionaire, founder of the Virgin group – whose activities range from an airline to sports – has long cultivated an impetuous image, with a number of sporting exploits.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to go into space. As that did not seem likely to my generation, I registered the name Virgin Galactic, with the idea of creating a company that would make it possible,” wrote Richard Branson a few days ago.
A goal that almost failed in 2014: the in-flight accident of a Virgin Galactic spacecraft caused the death of a pilot, significantly delaying the program.
Since then, VSS Unity has already arrived in space three times, in 2018 and 2019, with pilots on board and even a passenger in 2019.
The air base from which the plane took off on Sunday is Spaceport America, built in the New Mexico desert, less than 100 km north of the small town of Las Cruces.
Virgin Galactic began construction, funded largely by this southwestern US state.
The base includes a runway of more than 3.6 km in length and a building with spaces dedicated to flight operations, as well as the reception of future clients.
Regular flights for 2022?
After Sunday, Virgin Galactic plans two more test flights, then begins regular commercial operations in early 2022. And, in the long term, it aims to fly 400 flights a year from Spaceport America.
Some 600 tickets have already been sold to people from 60 different countries, including Hollywood celebrities, for between $200,000 and $250,000.
Although Branson keeps repeating that “space belongs to everyone”, adventure is still within the reach of a privileged few.
“When I return (from space), I will announce something very exciting so that more people can become astronauts,” he promised.
Competition in the space tourism sector, whose imminent start has been announced for years, accelerated this month: the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, also plans to take to the skies on July 20 with his own rocket, christened New Shepard and developed by his company Blue Origin.
The firm wielded its merits against those of Virgin Galactic on Friday. This Sunday, however, Bezos wished Richard Branson “a successful flight” on his Instagram account.
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