Early this morning, Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic achieved a major milestone in the development of commercial space travel. Along with a team of specialists, Branson traveled to the edge of space aboard the VSS Unity and made it safely back to Earth. In so doing, Branson and his company have also fired the latest salvo in the ongoing race between the titans of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace).

Coverage began at 7:30 am PST (10:30 am EST) and was live-streamed on the company website, its Youtube channel, and social media accounts. As promised, the event was hosted by comedian Stephen Colbert and co-hosted by a panel that consisted of famed former astronaut and science communicator Chris Hadfield, industry professional and popular science communicator Kelly Jerardi, and Virgin Galactic structures engineer Veronika McGowan.

Kicking things off in style, Branson rode his bicycle to Spaceport America and joined the rest of the crew, who then entered the facility and signed the “astronaut log book.” This included aerospace engineer Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor; Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003), the company’s lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004), Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research.

Take-off! The #Unity22 crew including @RichardBranson leave Spaceport America, New Mexico for #VirginGalactic’s first fully-crewed spaceflight. pic.twitter.com/RxGYp90nu8

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) July 11, 2021

At 08:21 AM PDT (11:21 AM EDT), the mission took off with its carrier – the VMS Eve (named after Branson’s late mother) – and was flown to its launch altitude of over 13,715 m (45,000 ft). At 09:15 AM PDT (12:15 PM EDT), the VSS Unity detached from VMS Eve and engaged its rocket motor for a full burn of 60 seconds. At this point, Branson and his fellow crewmembers were given the green light to undo their safety harnesses and float around the cabin.

The spacecraft achieved a top velocity of Mach 3 (3,700 km/h; 2,300 mph) and reach an altitude of 86 km (53.5 mi) – just slightly below the Kármán Line (the official boundary of space). The entire flight was captured by flight cameras mounted on the mothership, the spacecraft, and the chase plane. Branson and crew also live-tweeted the event and shared photos of their ascent and the four minutes of weightlessness they experienced.

“Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” Branson tweeted. “I have dreamt about this moment since I was a child, but going to space was more magical than I ever imagined.” Shortly after, the VSS Unity “feathered” its wings and began gliding safely back to Earth, touching down on the runway at Spaceport America at about 09:30 AM PDT (12:30 PM EDT). As promised, Branson had a “very exciting” announcement to share during the post-flight press event:

“Today Virgin Galactic is proud to announce that it has partnered with Amaze, to open space for everyone. If you go to Amaze.com/space to enter, you have a chance to go to space… You’ll be entered into the Amaze sweepstakes for the chance to win not one, but two seats aboard one of the first commercial Virgin Galactic spaceflights. And with my Willy Wonka hat on, a guided tour of Spaceport America, guided by yours truly, and I promise lots of chocolate in the factory…

“And I would just like to end by saying, welcome to the dawn of a new Space Age!”

Image tajne from inside VSS Unity during the four minutes of weightlessness. Credit: Virgin Galactic

The post-celebrations that accompanied the landing featured a performance by Grammy-nominated singer Khalid who debuted a new song, titled “New Normal” (a possible shout-out to the new age of space exploration?) and an earlier hit song, “Better/Talk.” Chris Hadfield was there as well to pin FAA Wings onto the lapels of the Unity 22 crew, who are now officially Commercial Astronauts. As always, Hadfield had some inspired words to share as he issued the
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