The space flight venture that was started by British billionaire Richard Branson achieved a symbolic milestone on Sunday as his Virgin Galactic rocket plane safely returned to the Earth after soaring more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert – marking the first fully crewed test flight to space for the vehicle.
Branson, who was accompanied by six employees of Virgin Galactic Holding Inc, hailed the feat to be a precursor to a new era of space tourism. Virgin Galactic Holding Inc was founded by Branson in 2004 and the company is slated to start commercial flights into space next year.
“We’re here to make space more accessible to all,” said an exuberant Branson, 70, shortly after completing the space flight. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”
Branson beat his fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, who wanted to be the first to fly into space in a rocket of his own space company.
“Congratulations on the flight,” Bezos said on Instagram. “Can’t wait to join the club!”
The space flight was livestreamed in a presentation hosted by late-night television comedian Stephen Colbert. Also present on the occasions was the billionaire space industry pioneer, Elon Musk, the founder of the United States based electric carmaker Tesla Inc and the owner of space travel company SpaceX.
During the highest point of the flight, a few minutes of microgravity was experienced by the crew on-board before re-entering the Earth.
“I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth,” Branson said in a video from space.
In the months ahead and prior to beginning regular commercial operation in 2022, the company will conduct at least two more test flights of the spaceplane. Virgin Galactic has said. According to company CEO Michael Colglazier, four Italian astronauts-in-training will be carried in one of those flights.
Reservations for a space flight have already been booked by 600 wealthy individuals, he said. The price of one such booking is around $250,000 and a ticket holder will be able to experience the exhilaration of supersonic flight along with weightlessness and the spectacle of spaceflight.
The company aims to be able to ultimately lower the price to around $40,000 per seat as and when the company ramps up its service and achieves greater economies of scale, Branson has said.
The company has a vision of building a large enough fleet so that it can conduct about 400 spaceflights, Colglazier said.
The possible value of the space tourism market could reach $3 billion annually by 2030, according to the estimates of the Swiss-based investment bank UBS.
The crucial element however is providing safety for the passengers.
One pilot was killed and another was injured in a crash in 2014 of an earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert.
(Adapted from NDTV.com)