British billionaire Richard Branson soared more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane and safely returned in the vehicle’s first fully crewed test flight to space, a symbolic milestone for a venture he started 17 years ago.
Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees strapped in for the ride, has touted the mission as a precursor to a new era of space tourism, with the company he founded in 2004 poised to begin commercial operations next year.
This launch of the VSS Unity passenger rocket plane marked the company’s 22nd test flight of its SpaceShipTwo system, and its fourth crewed mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
It was also the first to carry a full complement of space travelers – two pilots and four “mission specialists,” Branson among them.
Reaching its high-altitude launch point at about 46,000 feet, Unity was released from the mothership and fell away as its crew ignited the vehicle’s rocket, sending it streaking straight upward at supersonic speed to the blackness of space some 53 miles (85.9 km) high.
At the apex of the climb with the rocket shut down, the crew then experienced a few minutes of microgravity, before the spaceplane shifted into re-entry mode, and began a gliding descent to a runway back at the spaceport. The entire flight, from takeoff to landing, lasted about an hour. The three other mission specialists were Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Virgin Galactic’s lead operations engineer Colin Bennett; and Sirisha Bandla, a research operations and government affairs vice president.
The Swiss-based investment bank UBS has estimated the potential value of the space tourism market reaching $3 billion annually by 2030.
Indian-American astronaut Sirisha Bandla: Indian-American astronaut Sirisha Bandla returned from her maiden space flight. She became the third Indian-origin woman to fly into space after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams. Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma is the only Indian citizen to travel in space.
Bandla, a 34-year-old aeronautical engineer joined British billionaire Richard Branson and four others on board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Unity-22 to make a journey to the edge of space from the US state of New Mexico.