What Virgin Galactic's milestone flight means for the future of tourists in space

Carrying a crew that included company founder Richard Branson, the successful trip marks a significant step toward rocketing paying customers into new heights.

By Michael Greshko
Published 12 Jul 2021, 11:37 BST
Virgin Galactic
On July 11, Virgin Galactic’s space plane V.S.S. Unity lit its rocket motor and flew to more than 53 miles above Earth’s surface, sending the company’s founder Richard Branson to the edge of space.
Photo from Video by Virgin Galactic

More than 46,000 feet above the stark New Mexico desert, a white and silver space plane rocketed toward the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, riding on a fiery plume of burning laughing gas and solid rubber fuel. A few minutes later, the craft’s two pilots and four passengers, including billionaire Richard Branson, floated more than 53 miles above our planet’s surface: high enough to see Earth’s curvature and to slip the bonds of gravity, for a few minutes at least.

That gleaming craft—Virgin Galactic’s V.S.S. Unity—launched mid-air from a larger carrier aircraft to reach more than 53 miles skyward. As it completed its ascent, it rotated its twin tail booms, reconfiguring the vehicle to allow it to slowly fall through the upper atmosphere like a badminton shuttlecock. Fifteen minutes after separating from the mothership, V.S.S. Unity glided down to a landing strip back in New Mexico and rolled to a stop.

“It’s the complete experience of a lifetime,” a jubilant Branson said as V.S.S. Unity made its descent.

Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson and other passengers wait for the V.S.S. Unity, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital rocket-powered space plane, to be released from the mothership.
Photo from Video by Virgin Galactic

The mission, called Unity 22, marks the largest crew that Branson’s company Virgin Galactic has ever flown to the edge of space. The spectacle also served as a highly public milestone in the push to commercialise access to suborbital space, for pleasure and for profit. Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight—its fourth with humans aboard—comes just nine days before billionaire Jeff Bezos is slated to fly on New Shepard, a suborbital rocket built by his company Blue Origin.

“The fact that the founders of these companies are going to fly on the official first missions of these things is pretty stunning to me,” says space historian Jennifer Levasseur, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “It’s obviously investing an incredible amount of faith in what you’ve put together, the people and the technology—and, you know, there’s that inherent sense of adventure in each of them that makes the risk worth it.”

Both companies have been criticized as vanity projects and luxuries for the ultra-wealthy. Virgin Galactic had been charging £180,000 per ticket in its advance sales but has since said it will raise the price. Blue Origin hasn’t started selling seats on New Shepard, nor has it released its ticket prices, but in a June auction, a ride on the upcoming flight with Bezos sold for $28 million (£20 million).

Beyond the glory-seeking exploits of the rich, though, new space vehicles like SpaceShipTwo and New Shepard could provide a unique platform for aerospace and scientific research.

“It’s not just a bunch of billionaires,” says Laura Seward Forczyk, founder of the space industry analysis firm Astralytical. “There is real science that can be done.”

Space tourism

Private forays into space aren’t anything new. Since 2000, several deep-pocketed tourists have spent tens of millions of dollars to fly to the International Space Station. In addition, NASA has gradually encouraged private companies to take over U.S. launches of cargo and astronauts to the ISS. Commercial cargo flights for NASA began in 2012, and commercial crew flights began in 2020.

But for years, companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have been working on a different kind of spaceflight: suborbital space tourism. Soon, anyone with hundreds of thousands of dollars to burn could strap in and take a minutes-long trip to the edge of space.

While the internationally recognised boundary of space is generally considered to be 62 miles (100 kilometres) in altitude, known as the Kármán line, the United States uses 50 miles (80 kilometres) as the cutoff point. Last week's Virgin Galactic flight reached 282,773 feet (about 53.5 miles or 86 kilometres). The July 20 Blue Origin flight is expected to go about 65 miles (105 kilometers) high.

Building new spacecraft for tourists has proven extremely difficult, requiring years of testing and resulting in sometimes deadly incidents—notably a fatal crash of a prototype SpaceShipTwo rocket plane in 2014. Now, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are transitioning from test flights to commercial trips with ticketed customers, with both companies’ billionaire founders riding their firms’ vehicles to space.

For Virgin Galactic in particular, it’s been a long road to get to this point. The company’s space plane has its roots in a program that began in the mid-1990s.

A new space plane

Unlike traditional crewed rockets that launch from the ground, SpaceShipTwo launches from mid-air. A mothership called WhiteKnightTwo carries the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane to an altitude of more than 40,000 feet. SpaceShipTwo then drops from the bigger plane’s underbelly, ignites its rocket engine, and flies toward the edge of space at a steep incline, travelling roughly three and a half times the speed of sound.

Launching a rocket plane from mid-air might sound like a complex way to get humans into space. But “air-launch” comes with several advantages, says Chuck Rogers, a deputy branch chief at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Centre in California. The technique has been explored over several decades of flight research, including the X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier, and the X-15, still the fastest piloted plane ever flown, topping out at 4,520 miles an hour during a 1967 flight.

Launching from mid-air can be highly efficient because the spacecraft doesn’t have to trudge through the dense lower atmosphere under its own power, meaning it can carry less fuel. And by using a space plane, the vehicle can take off and land at a long conventional runway, reducing the need for additional launchpad infrastructure.

Design work on SpaceShipOne, the experimental predecessor to SpaceShipTwo, started in 1996, with the announcement of the Ansari X Prize. That contest offered $10 million (£7 million) to the first fully private team to fly a spacecraft more than 100 kilometres above Earth’s surface twice in two weeks by the end of 2004, all while carrying a pilot and two passengers’ worth of weight.

The competition’s early favorite was Burt Rutan, an iconoclastic engineer renowned for his quirky, extremely efficient airplane designs. For his X Prize entry, Rutan settled on an air-launch design with a unique approach to descent: Just before SpaceShipOne reached its highest altitude, the craft’s two tail booms would hinge upward by 65 degrees like hackles on a dog’s back. This “feathering” system greatly increased the craft’s drag during descent, slowing it down to the point where it could safely fall through the atmosphere, retract the tail booms, and then glide to a runway for landing.

Progress on the space plane was slow until Rutan and his company Scaled Composites got an investment from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2001. In June 2004, SpaceShipOne became the first privately funded vehicle to enter space. Less than four months later, the space plane flew twice beyond 100 kilometres and won the X Prize. (Read Burt Rutan’s first-person account of building and testing SpaceShipOne.)

“It was the perfect flight,” says test pilot Brian Binnie, who flew the prize-winning second flight on October 4, 2004. “I still feel it today—it’s like I wasn’t alone, that there were some other forces at play.”

Following SpaceShipOne’s X Prize success, Branson licensed Rutan’s designs for Virgin Galactic with the goal of scaling them up to a larger, multi-passenger vehicle: SpaceShipTwo.

SpaceShipTwo’s long road to flight

SpaceShipTwo is roughly twice as big as its predecessor, but it brought more than twice the headaches. The vehicle’s bigger size required redesigns of the mothership and the space plane’s rocket motor, among other technical snafus, causing delay after delay.

Two deadly accidents also struck the SpaceShipTwo team. In 2007, three people died in an explosion before a rocket motor test. And on October 31, 2014, a SpaceShipTwo prototype broke apart mid-ascent after one of the pilots unlocked the craft’s feathering system early. Copilot Michael Alsbury died in the resulting crash, and pilot Peter Siebold suffered serious injuries. The 2014 accident reportedly shook Branson, but Virgin Galactic ultimately decided to continue.

“I give Branson full credit for staying the course; he had plenty of opportunities to back out of this business,” says Binnie, who worked on SpaceShipTwo until 2014. “It sounds so glamorous to get into the rocket business, but … when the rubber meets the road, it’s a real gut check.”

After years of safety upgrades, two pilots in SpaceShipTwo first crossed the 50-mile threshold in 2018. In 2019, the craft did it again, this time with a passenger: Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor.

“It was magnificent. It was indescribable,” Moses told National Geographic in a 2019 interview. “It’s an amazing, amazing, sort of mildly intense, wonderful experience.”

In May 2021, Virgin Galactic completed its third flight above 50 miles, which led the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to issue the company a full commercial license. The test paved the way for the Unity 22 launch—and gave the company enough confidence in the system to let Branson himself aboard.

Science on the edge of space

Much of the discussion around Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin has focused on the race between Branson and Bezos. But as these duelling billionaires fly toward the heavens, the vehicles their companies have built have enabled new kinds of research.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights offer about three to five minutes of continuous weightlessness. Scientists have been able to access suborbital space before, but primarily via uncrewed spacecraft. With these new vehicles, researchers are able to fly alongside the experiments and run them mid-flight.

Already, the two companies have flown science payloads and tech demonstrations, with the support of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. The Unity 22 flight included a human-tended experiment that recorded changes in plants’ gene activity just as the plants started to experience weightlessness, designed by the University of Florida and run by Virgin Galactic employee Sirisha Bandla.

Past experiments on the space shuttle and the ISS have recorded in detail how life functions in microgravity. But biochemically, how do living things transition from feeling Earth’s gravity to weightlessness? Scientists have no idea. But suborbital flights like Unity 22 provide a unique opportunity to study the question, says University of Florida biologist Rob Ferl, the experiment’s co-principal investigator. 

“We’re the scientists who get to simply open the door on this biological universe that’s never been looked at before,” Ferl says.

The future of suborbital flight

Even if Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin fly their booked customers and garner research contracts, space industry analyst Forczyk cautions that we still don’t know how big the suborbital market will end up being.

In theory, ticket prices will come down as flights become more common. But for now, the infant industry is targeted primarily at the ultra-wealthy, their guests, and funded researchers. As the technology matures, Forczyk says, we will find out whether the billionaire-driven spaceflight companies can deliver on their promise of “democratising space,” or if suborbital thrill rides will remain an extreme luxury.

The future of private rides to the edge of space will also depend on how safe the vehicles prove to be. Under current U.S. law, federal officials are limited in their ability to regulate passenger safety in commercial spaceflight until 2023. “I don’t think anyone is fooled into thinking that this is going to be a risk-free environment,” Forczyk says. “I think we should anticipate and expect fatal accidents to occur.”

But even if incidents slow development, consumer access to suborbital space and beyond will likely continue to expand. “I would probably look at it more as the end of the beginning,” says Smitsonian historian Levasseur. “Spaceflight is never going to be routine; this is not a routine process ... [But] we’re entering a new phase of regularity.”

For Binnie, seeing SpaceShipTwo take to the skies brings him back to the legacy of the prototype rocket plane he flew to a record 367,500 feet.

“SpaceShipOne, I’m thankful to say, is not gonna be a one-off vehicle hanging in a museum,” he says. “It’s actually going to be the catalyst for something better, brighter, bigger.”


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