Six humans roared perfectly skyward from Spaceport America, north of Las Cruces, N.M., early Sunday morning, including the wealthiest person ever to reach the edge of space. Virgin Galactic billionaire Sir Richard Branson was joined aboard Virgin Space Ship (VSS) “Unity”—an air-launched SpaceShipTwo-class spaceplane—by three other mission specialists and two veteran pilots for the 15-minute flight.
Lifted to an altitude of more than 46,000 feet (12,000 meters) under the fuselage of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft—known as Virgin Mother Ship (VMS) “Eve”—the spaceplane burned its hybrid RocketMotorTwo engine for 60 seconds to reach a peak apogee of about 53.5 miles (86.1 km) and a few precious minutes of weightlessness for her crew.
“Today is a landmark achievement for the Company and a historic moment for the new commercial space industry,” said Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive officer. “With each successful mission we are paving the way for the next generation of astronauts. I want to thank our talented team, including our pilots and crew, whose dedication and commitment made today possible. They are helping open the door for greater access to space – so it can be for the many and not just for the few.”
Under the U.S. definition for the lowermost limit of what constitutes “outer space”, any vehicle exceeding an altitude of 50 miles (80 km)—roughly the transitional zone between the mesosphere and thermosphere—can earn its crew members astronauts’ wings. And this is precisely what happened following 13 flights by North American’s X-15 rocket-powered hypersonic aircraft between July 1962 and August 1968, whose eight pilots earned such wings, bestowed upon them by the U.S. Air Force.
However, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) notches the threshold of space a little higher at 62 miles (100 km), a point known as the ‘Kármán Line’. This is named after Theodore von Kármán, a Hungarian-American engineer who first described it as the altitude at which the atmosphere is too thin for aeronautical purposes, since vehicles would need to travel faster than orbital velocity to achieve sufficient lift. Although VSS Unity has now delivered humans well beyond 50 miles (80 km) on four occasions between December 2018 and today, none of its missions have yet surpassed the Kármán Line.
Conversely, Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster/capsule combo has flown 15 times uncrewed between April 2015 and April 2021, 12 of which passed the Kármán Line, peaking at 73.8 miles (118.8 km) during one mission in July 2018. With its first human launch tentatively scheduled for 20 July—with a crew that includes Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and “Mercury 13” aviator Wally Funk—it remains to be seen if New Shepard will exceed the Kármán Line. “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,” Blue Origin recently tweeted. “For 96 percent of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up.”
Following the formation of Virgin Galactic in 2004, hopes to fly its first SpaceShipTwo vehicle by late 2009 never came to pass, with the initial launch date always seemingly just over the horizon. And for his part, Sir Richard made no secret of his intent to fly on the first passenger-carrying mission. At one stage, hopeful of flying on Chrismas Day in 2013, he joked that he might dress as Santa for the occasion. Even his mother, Eve, for whom the WhiteKnightTwo VMS carrier aircraft is named, quipped that she was never entirely sure when the maiden flight would happen.
During early atmospheric tests, the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle—dubbed VSS “Enterprise”—flew repeatedly from October 2010, but was lost over the Mojave Desert, near Cantil, Calif., in October 2014 when her “feathered” re-entry system prematurely deployed during powered flight and she broke up in mid-air. One of her two pilots was killed. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) later identified inadequate design safeguards, poor pilot training and lack of sufficiently rigorous oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as principal causal factors in the tragedy.
Meanwhile, the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle was unveiled in February 2016, christened by Sir Richard’s young granddaughter with a bottle of milk and formally named VSS “Unity” by celebrated British physicist Prof. Stephen Hawking. She undertook four “captive-carry” flights, firmly affixed to WhiteKnightTwo, later that same year, then her first Glide Flight in December 2016 and her first Powered Flight in April 2018. This enabled VSS Unity to evaluate her center-of-gravity constraints by flying passenger seats in her cabin and in July 2018 she reached mesospheric altitudes for the first time. During this period, the FAA also awarded Virgin Galactic an operator’s license for SpaceShipTwo.
Building on this steady run of success, in December 2018 VSS Unity triumphantly completed her first “spaceflight” out of the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif., carrying pilots Mark Stucky and former shuttle commander Rick Sturckow to an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.7 km). Following a supersonic re-entry, Stucky and Sturckow guided her home to a smooth landing. Just two months later, VSS Unity flew again with pilots Dave Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci, plus Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses. During that flight, which reached 55.8 miles (89.9 km), Moses floated freely inside VSS Unity’s cabin to complete a range of mission tasks.
Following this second trip to the edge of space, in February 2020 VSS Unity and VMS Eve were relocated from the Mojave Air and Space Port to their new home base at Spaceport America, north of Las Cruces, N.M. A pair of initial Glide Flights in May and June 2020—conducted in spite of the ravages of COVID-19—cleared a final hurdle, ahead of VSS Unity’s scheduled first mission to the edge of space from New Mexico.
An initial attempt by Mackay and Sturckow last December suffered from an incomplete ignition of RocketMotorTwo, due to a computer malfunction, although the pilots landed safely. Success was finally achieved on 22 May of this year, when Mackay and Sturckow flew the spaceplane to almost 55.5 miles (89.2 km) and returned safely to land at Spaceport America. In doing so, Sturckow—who had flown four Space Shuttle missions from Florida as a NASA astronaut and VSS Unity from California as a Virgin Galactic test pilot—became the first person to launch from three different U.S. States.
Following the May flight, the FAA updated Virgin Galactic’s August 2016 commercial space transportation operator license to permit it to fly fare-paying customers for the first time. And on 1 July, Virgin Galactic identified No Earlier Than (NET) 11 July for its first VSS Unity mission with a full six-person crew. Leading the crew would be Mackay and Masucci, embarking on their third and second VSS Unity spaceflights respectively, together with Beth Moses as one of the four mission specialists. Rounding out the crew would be Sir Richard himself—identified as “Astronaut 001”—together with Virgin Galactic Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations Sirisha Bandla and Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett.
Hopes of getting Sunday’s historic flight airborne shortly after sunrise were thwarted by more than an hour, due to unacceptable weather conditions at the launch site. However, VMS Eve—with VSS Unity tucked underneath her fuselage—duly took to the skies from Runway 16/34 at Spaceport America. At the controls of VMS Eve were Sturckow and seasoned Virgin Orbit pilot Kelly Latimer. They piloted the Eve/Unity combo to an altitude of approximately 46,000 feet (12,000 meters) and a velocity of around 390 mph (630 km/h), about half the speed of sound.
Beginning at T-10 minutes, checks of VSS Unity’s flight surfaces got underway and at T-30 seconds Sturckow and Latimer armed the launch pylon to release the spaceplane. “Release, Release, Release!” came the call at around 9:25 a.m. MDT (11:25 a.m. EDT) as the spaceplane completed a clean release and drop away from the launch pylon. Seconds later, RocketMotorTwo roared to life, pushing VSS Unity rapidly through Mach 1, before hitting Mach 2 at 30 seconds into the burn, then approaching Mach 3 at 50 seconds. The engine shut down following a perfect 60-second burn, after which the spaceplane drifted steadily uphill toward an apogee of about 53.5 miles (86.1 km), equivalent to more than 282,000 feet.
During this phase of the flight, the occupants of VSS Unity’s passenger cabin were able to unstrap from their seats and clips from Virgin Galactic’s livestream showed Sir Richard and his three crewmates experiencing weightlessness and the spectacular view of the Home Planet through the spaceplane’s 17 panoramic windows. It was estimated that they had just a few minutes of weightlessness, before the spaceplane headed back towards Runway 16/34 at Spaceport America.
By 9:30 a.m. MDT (11:30 a.m. EDT), having descended below 75,000 feet (23,000 meters), VSS Unity went subsonic and Mackay and Masucci deployed her feathered re-entry mechanism and verified it as being securely locked into position. Approaching the 12,000-foot-long (3,600-meter) concrete runway, VSS Unity’s landing gear were confirmed as down and locked and touchdown was confirmed at 9:40 a.m. MDT (11:40 a.m. EDT) at a relative ground-speed of 160 mph (257 km/h). The spaceplane’s wheels came to a graceful stop a little over a minute later.
“I have dreamt about this moment since I was a child, but nothing could have prepared me for the view of Earth from space,” said Sir Richard, before he and his crewmates were pinned with commercial astronaut wings by former ISS Commander Chris Hadfield. “We are at the vanguard of a new space age. As Virgin’s founder, I was honoured to test the incredible customer experience as part of this remarkable crew of mission specialists and now astronauts. I can’t wait to share this experience with aspiring astronauts around the world.”