It was a short commute for a man – 68 minutes, to be precise, only four minutes of weightlessness.
But after returning to Earth on Sunday morning as part of the first group of passengers to board his company’s rocket-propelled space plane, Sir Richard Branson insisted on the giant leap his trip represents for those who have the desire and the means to follow.
“We’re here to make space more accessible to everyone,” said the entrepreneur and managing director of Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company that aims to send paying customers on suborbital flights starting next year. .
In a post-landing ceremony at the New Mexico facility that serves as the company’s base of operations, Sir Richard said he started the company 17 years ago with the aim of turning the dream of spaceflight into a reality for “many who are alive today.” ”
He added that the experience – which involved seeing the sky change from brilliant blue to inky black, then pulling off your seat and floating in the cabin while looking at Earth far below – “was simply Magic “.
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The event, including the entire flight of the Unity22 spacecraft, was broadcast live on the internet and widely televised. Both adventure and publicity, the occasion has managed to capture the celebration of a human and technical achievement while giving future passengers a clear idea of what they will get when they book a ticket, currently priced at $ 250. US $ 000 per customer.
Later in the ceremony, former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who achieved space celebrity status by playing guitar and tweeting about his experiences aboard the International Space Station in 2013, pinned “wings Astronaut ‘on Sir Richard and his three traveling companions, all of whom are employed with the company.
Their journey began at 8:40 a.m. local time, when the Unity22 was taken to an altitude of about 9 miles by its carrier plane and dropped. Once removed from the aircraft carrier, the craft then flew up to 85 kilometers – a transition point in the atmosphere defined by the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA as the point of departure from space. It then plunged back to Earth, landing like a glider.
While the ship, with a crew of two, has reached the same milestone three times previously, this is the first time it has done so with a full complement of four passengers on board.
The flight allows Sir Richard to claim victory in a billionaire’s battle to be the first person to be transported to space by his own company – with the caveat that other organizations consider an altitude of 100 kilometers is the correct limit. Last week, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and CEO of space company Blue Origin, announced that he would attempt to reach that threshold with the first crewed flight of his company’s capsule scheduled for July 20.
Robert Thirsk, a physician and engineer who became the first Canadian astronaut to complete a long-duration space mission in 2009, said that, bragging aside, the two companies are taking small but important steps into the longer-term future. end of privately funded space flights. He compared their efforts to the early days of transcontinental railroads that eventually opened up the West.
“The transition from the space program from government programs to private programs is accelerating, at least for suborbital and low orbit flights,” he added. “But the development of space will not progress significantly until we can transport hundreds of people and tons of cargo through space each year. “
The trend also represents the most concrete attempts to date to monetize an aspect of spaceflight that emerged as a side effect of the original space race that took place in the late 1950s to early 1970s between the States. United and the Soviet Union.
At the time, space was mainly recognized for political, military and scientific reasons. It was only after astronauts began to describe the life-changing perception of seeing Earth from orbit and the feeling of floating in a microgravity environment that the allure and potential value of space flight in as long as human experience has become evident.
“I suspect that many [would-be] space tourists had a childhood dream of flying into space, ”said Dr Thirsk. “Realizing that dream might be the biggest motivator. “
Marc Boucher, editor-in-chief of SpaceQ, an online publication that tracks the space industry, said the opportunities opened up by suborbital commercial flights are of interest to scientists, universities and government organizations looking for competitively priced ways to conduct suborbital research. . This includes the Canadian Space Agency, which signed a memorandum of understanding with Virgin Galactic last November.
“They see Canada as a market, and not just for its tourism side,” Boucher said of the company’s goals.
It remains to be seen whether Virgin Galactic can maintain interest in its offering and remain viable over the long term. The company faced challenges along the way, including an accident during a test flight in 2014 that resulted in the death of a co-pilot.
His chances of success may have been greatly improved – or perhaps even reached flight speed – thanks to Sunday’s spectacle and the enthusiastic reactions from Sir Richard and his fellow travelers.
Recounting his own impressions of seeing Earth from space, Mr Hadfield said the company was set to make that view accessible to many more eyes, starting with those who flew on Sunday.
“They now have that inside of them,” he said.
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