San Francisco, July 11: Heralding a new space tourism era, Virgin Galactic's billionaire CEO Richard Branson on Sunday flew to the edge of space with three employees, including one of Indian-origin, leaving Jeff Bezos to follow his route on July 20.
Branson flew aboard his Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity space-plane, along with three company employees to the edge of space a little after 10:30 a.m. ET (8.00 pm India time). The 70-year-old arrived on a bike at the Spaceport America, the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport located in Southern New Mexico. Virgin Galactic's twin-fuselage White Knight carrier aircraft carries the rocket-powered spaceship VSS Unity.
Besides Branson, the flight includes Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor and Colin Bennett, lead Operations Engineer and Indian-origin Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs at Virgin Galactic. Moses serves as cabin lead and test director in space, overseeing the safe and efficient execution of the test flight objectives, while Bennett will evaluate cabin equipment, procedures, and experience during both the boost phase and in the weightless environment.
Bandla will be evaluating the human-tended research experience, using an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes that will be activated at various points in the flight profile, and Branson will evaluate the private astronaut experience and will undergo the same training, preparation and flight as Virgin Galactic's future astronauts.
The pilots are Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci flying VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer flying VMS Eve. About 40 minutes after takeoff, Unity dropped from the middle of the mothership and ignited its rocket engine moments later to send Branson and the crew to the edge of space, about 89 kms high, for a few minutes of weightlessness. The flight was earlier scheduled for 6.30 pm (India time), but was delayed due to bad overnight weather in the launch area, the company shared in a tweet.
"Overnight weather delayed the start of flight preparations, but we are on track to fly today with a newly scheduled time," the company shared in a tweet.