Lying on his back and blasting toward the heavens at more than three times the speed of sound Richard Branson pulled off the coup of his life.
He became the triumphant initiator of the business he named space tourism by riding in his SpaceShip Unity to the edge of space and returning safely to earth after 90 minutes.
At the same time, this being one of the world’s most shameless self-promoters, Branson wrapped the event in such a stream of gushing hype (aided by, of all people, Stephen Colbert and a huge free infomercial on the major networks), that the live commentary tended to obscure what an enormous and courageous gamble this was.
Pressed by the prospect of being beaten by Jeff Bezos, who is planning to ride his own rival rocket, Blue Origin, into space on July 20, Branson had, essentially, bet his whole company, Virgin Galactic, on getting there first. Originally, one more test flight had been planned before giving the green light for Branson to fly.
Until now, Unity had made only three rocket-powered test flights since being launched in 2016. It has yet to fly with a full load of six passengers and two pilots. Branson was accompanied by three of his top executives, including the only non-pilot to have previously flown a mission, Beth Moses, the chief astronaut instructor.
Unlike the familiar countdown drama of a rocket launch (as with rival Blue Origin) from a pad, the white knuckle tension came 50 minutes into this flight when Unity was dropped from its mother ship at a height of 46,000 feet and, after a few seconds of fall to separate the two vehicles, the pilots fired up the rocket.
That was the moment when everything was at stake. On a previous test flight the rocket failed to ignite and Unity never reached space, instead gliding safely down to the runway. This time the engine ignited and, after brief level flight, the nose was pointing straight up, and Unity became a rocket ship.
Branson and fellow passengers were then pressed hard into their seats by two forces: passing through the sound barrier and reaching a speed of around Mach 3.5 G – Mach being the speed of sound – and by experiencing the bodily pressure of more than 4G, four times the force of gravity.
There were two more extremes of physical sensation. When Unity reached its apogee of 282,000 feet and began falling back to earth, there were around three minutes of weightlessness when the passengers unbuckled and felt the eeriness of floating unmoored in the cabin, able to peer out the windows and see the curve of the earth below and the darkness of space above.
Then they had to buckle-up again for re-entry. Moving into the thicker air of the stratosphere during re-entry the G forces returned with deceleration, and the skin of Unity heated up with the friction. The vehicle uses a unique “feathering” system to assist the braking, with its nose tilted up like a shuttlecock.
Branson was wearing one of the upscale blue jumpsuits that have been custom-styled for Galactic, made of “breathable knitted fabrics” – echoing the nattiness of the wardrobe first conceived for Star Trek (real astronauts in space have to wear pressure suits). He said his role was not technical but to “review the passenger experience.”
If this sounds a bit like the aesthetic of a theme park, it’s not an accident: Branson recently hired Joe Rohde, who was a Disney “imagineer” as Custom Experience Architect.
So it’s time for a reality check, to be clear about what Branson has now achieved and what remains to be achieved.
This flight will deliver more than a priceless publicity gift. It will be a turning point in Branson’s ability to raise the money needed to take the company closer to its declared goal of operating as many as 400 flights a year. For there will need to be many more rounds of fund raising to move from a few virtually hand-built prototypes to having the industrialized volume production needed to build a fleet.
Unity is the second version of the SpaceShip model (the first crashed in 2014). In evolutionary terms it represents Galactic 1.0.
The next few vehicles built, known as the SpaceShip Three Class, will be a path toward 2.0, when the frequency and reliability of flights needs to improve. But until real industrial scale is reached with a fourth generation of vehicle, known as Spaceship Delta, Galactic will not reach 3.0 – a mature business delivering regular daily flights.
That means that of the 600 or more people who have already paid deposits, averaging $130,000, for seats on future flights, the vast majority will have to wait at least another three years to fly – and that’s optimistic. Meanwhile, Branson has made it clear that he intends to use scarcity as justification for a high seat price – considerably more than the $250,000 he was quoting some years ago.
It’s a huge challenge for any business to move from pioneering innovation to becoming a market-dominating brand. In this case it’s like starting an airline and, at the same time, designing, testing and manufacturing a whole fleet of airliners. Nobody has ever done that.
It took NASA 10 years and the bottomless budget of a government program to put a man on the moon. It’s taken Branson 16 years to do something far less ambitious, in comparison a mere blip in the sky. Even then he’s burned through well over a billion dollars.
It’s always been Branson’s modus operandi to gamble his way toward a dream by continually convincing other people that it’s attainable. As he said before the flight in a message to his grandchildren, he lives by the rule of keeping a child-like sense of adventure.
And, as of now, a lot more people will be buying into this dream.