Star Wars: Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight to usher in a new era of private commercial space travel

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July 11, 2021 1:30 AM

Richard Branson is set to take off for space today, beating fellow billionaire businessmen Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, and ushering in a new era of private commercial space travel

A file photo of Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson outside the New York Stock Exchange (AP)A file photo of Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson outside the New York Stock Exchange (AP)

Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is scheduled to take off with the crew of the test flight of his Virgin Galactic space plane today—two weeks before Jeff Bezos. This would be yet another landmark achievement by Branson, marking a new era of private commercial space travel. Last week, Branson had tweeted: “I’ve always been a dreamer… My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars. On July 11, it’s time to turn that dream into a reality aboard the next Virgin Galactic spaceflight.” He will be “testing the private astronaut experience” alongside four mission specialists and two pilots.

That’s not all. The billionaire also shared a teaser of an additional announcement after his flight. “When we return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people a chance to become astronauts, because space does belong to us all,” he said. “So watch this space.” VSS Unity spacecraft will have onboard Virgin Galactic’s mission specialists, including chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett, vice-president of government affairs at Virgin Galactic Sirisha Bandla, and pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci. The one-of-a-kind experience will be livestreamed on the company’s website, as well as on its Twitter, YouTube and Facebook channels.

Branson’s flight into space is the latest development in the big billionaire space race. Before him, Jeff Bezos, founder of retail giant Amazon, grabbed headlines last month with news of his travel to space on July 20 as part of the first crewed flight by his space company Blue Origin. For more than two decades, both Branson and Bezos have been testing suborbital rockets to take on a 2,300-mile-per-hour ride above earth. Branson, Bezos and even Elon Musk have been leading the new age of commercial spaceflight with technologies that would be economical and safe.

However, if all goes as per plan, Branson would become the real showstopper with an early takeoff. In interviews, though, Branson has stated that he has no intention of competing with anyone. In fact, he has agreed to invite Bezos to watch the event. In a CNN interview, he said that any suggestion that Virgin Galactic may be compromising safety in an effort to get Branson to space before Bezos is “completely wrong”.

Virgin Galactic (a carrier airplane that can reach high altitudes around 90 km to view earth’s curvature) would fly with commercial space transportation operator licence approval granted by the Federal Aviation Administration, the largest transportation agency of the US government, which regulates all aspects of civil aviation, as well as surrounding international waters.

Space travel now doesn’t seem so distant. With qualified space travellers, the digital revolution and sophisticated tech, we will see a new class of explorers in the future. More companies are placing bets on the sector in the coming months—rocket-builder Astra and satellite broadband-focused AST & Science are in talks with companies Rocket Lab, Spire Global, BlackSky, Momentus.

Talking about the opportunities in the space travel market for companies like Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Branson told CNBC in an interview last week: “There’s room for 20 space companies to take people up there… The more spaceships we can build, the more we can bring the price down and the more we’ll be able to satisfy demand, and that will happen over the years to come.”

Earlier, Virgin Galactic’s leadership had forecast that “around two million people can experience” space flights that are priced in the $250,000-$500,000 range, as per reports. At the moment, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are competing to take passengers on short flights to the edge of space (suborbital tourism), while Musk’s SpaceX plans to launch private passengers on further, multi-day flights (orbital tourism), as per reports.

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