Sir Richard Branson, aka “Astronaut 001 (License to Thrill)” became a spaceman today with a crew of five others aboard his own spaceship, the VSS Unity.
Unlike other space launches, from teeth-rattling explosive vertical rocket-boosted liftoffs, this one began as an ordinary flight. Takeoff was the same as in the cabin (luxury first class, mind you) of a normal aircraft from a normal runway. This is where the similarity ends, however. Branson and his crew were in a spaceship attached to a “mothership” that took off from a spaceport.
Spaceport America, in New Mexico, is the headquarters of Virgin Galactic and the culmination of a vision Branson has been nurturing since he was a child witnessing the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. In a pre-recorded personal introduction to the live-streamed event, co-hosted by a panel that included Stephen Colbert and astronaut Chris Hadfield, he paid tribute to the support and inspiration of his incredible mother, Eve, after whom Branson named the mothership.
In only about 15 minutes, Eve reaches the separation altitude of 45,000 ft. Upon release, Unity freefalls briefly, then fires its rocket engines, makes a “gamma” turn and goes straight up. The speedometer increases rapidly from about 350 miles/hour to Mach 3, which is 3 times the speed of sound – an incredible 2,300 miles/hour. At that altitude and with that kind of acceleration, the rockets only need to burn for 60 seconds for the spaceship to leave Earth’s atmosphere.
At that point, the wings “feather” (fold up), the now-silent spacecraft flips over so that the view of earth out all 17 windows is unobstructed, and the passengers remove their seatbelts to weightlessly mingle. A technical glitch prevented today’s live HD audio/video feed from inside the cabin, except for a few brief glimpses of the elated occupants. However, the recording of Richard Branson’s on-board comments and video from the spaceship are now available on the Virgin Galactic website and social media channels.
After only a few minutes while the spaceship moves through the apex of its trajectory, the passengers buckle up again and Unity begins its descent to earth. The wings remain feathered (“just like Richard’s hair” says Colbert) until it enters the denser atmosphere, when they unfold and the craft glides smoothly back to the runway for a typical aircraft landing. License to thrill indeed. Virgin Galactic is accepting reservations.