Richard Branson has become the first billionaire to go to the edge of space, after flying on-board a successful test flight of his Virgin Galactic commercial rocket plane.
Branson had announced that he would be a part of the crew on-board the Unity 22 sub-orbital flight just over a week before the launch, with the plane taking of from the commercial spaceflight company’s New Mexico base just after 10.30am EST (3.30pm BST) on Sunday, July 11.
The British billionaire’s achievement comes less than two weeks before Jeff Bezos is scheduled to also make a sub-orbital flight as a passenger on-board his own spaceflight company Blue Origin’s ‘New Shepard’ rocket. The Amazon founder is set to launch on July 20, but will now have to reckon with the fact that, in a surprise twist, he’s been beaten to the punch by Branson.
The Unity 22 flight was shown on a livestream hosted by Stephen Colbert and was watched live on YouTube by more than 600,000 people. The rocket plane was carried to an altitude of 50,000 feet by a specially designed carrier jet, before being released mid-air and climbing using its own rocket power to fly at supersonic speeds to a height of 55 miles above the Earth.
NASA officially defines ‘space’ as 50 miles above sea level, however there has been some controversy as to whether Branson’s voyage qualifies as ‘space flight’. In a dig posted on Twitter following the Virgin Galactic announcement, Blue Origin pointed out that the internationally recognised boundary, known as the Kármán line, is 62 miles.
‘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,’ Bezos’s company tweeted, pointing out that their spacecraft is expected to reach 66 miles above sea level. ‘For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line.’
Meanwhile, fellow billionaire spaceflight entrepreneur Elon Musk showed his support for Branson by travelling to Virgin Galactic’s New Mexico headquarters to watch the launch. In a tweet, Musk wrote ‘will see you there to wish you the best’.
Virgin Galactic was founded by Branson in 2004, and is aiming to begin flying commercial passengers to space next year, with ticket prices beginning at $250,000.
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Topics: Technology, Blue Origin, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Now, Richard Branson, Space, Virgin Galactic