Branson Completes Virgin Galactic Flight, Aiming to Open Up Space Tourism
SPACEPORT AMERICA, N.M. — Soaring more than 50 miles into the hot, glaringly bright skies above New Mexico, Richard Branson at last fulfilled a dream that took decades to realize: He can now call himself an astronaut.
On Sunday morning, a small rocket plane operated by Virgin Galactic, which Mr. Branson founded in 2004, carried him and five other people to the edge of space and back.
More than an hour later, Mr. Branson took the stage to celebrate. “The whole thing was magical,” he said.
Later, during a news conference, Mr. Branson was still giddy, saying “I don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth because I feel I’m still in space.”
Mr. Branson’s flight reinforces the hopes of space enthusiasts that routine travel to the final frontier may soon be available to private citizens, not just the professional astronauts of NASA and other space agencies. Another billionaire with his own rocket company — Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon — has plans to make a similar jaunt to the edge of space in nine days.
In each case, billionaire entrepreneurs are risking injury or death to fulfill their childhood aspirations — and advance the goal of making human spaceflight unexceptional.
“They’re putting their money where their mouth is, and they’re putting their body where their money is,” said Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures Limited, a company that charters launches to orbit. “That’s impressive, frankly.”
“他们真正行动起来，他们身体力行。”负责将火箭发射到轨道的公司太空探险有限公司(Space Adventures Limited)的主席埃里克·安德森(Eric Anderson)说。“说真的，这让人很钦佩。”
At 8:40 a.m. Mountain time, a carrier aircraft, with the rocket plane, named V.S.S. Unity, tucked underneath, rose off the runway and headed to an altitude of about 45,000 feet. There, Unity was released, and a few moments later, its rocket motor ignited, accelerating the space plane on an upward arc.
Although Unity had made three previous trips to space, this was its first launch that resembled a full commercial flight of the sort that Virgin Galactic has promised to offer the general public, with two pilots — David Mackay and Michael Masucci — and four more crew members including Mr. Branson.
虽然“团结”号此前曾三次前往太空，但这次，是与维珍银河承诺向公众推出的全商业飞行类似的首次发射，除两名飞行员——戴维·麦凯(David Mackay)和迈克尔·马苏奇(Michael Masucci)——之外，还有包括布兰森在内的另外四名机组成员。
This flight resembled a party for Virgin Galactic and the nascent space tourism business. Guests included Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX; Michelle Lujan Grisham, the governor of New Mexico; and about 60 customers who have paid for future Virgin Galactic flights.
这次飞行仿佛是维珍银河与新兴太空旅游业的一次庆祝派对。嘉宾包括SpaceX创始人伊隆·马斯克(Elon Musk)；新墨西哥州州长米歇尔·卢扬·格里沙姆(Michelle Lujan Grisham)；以及大约60名已为维珍银河的未来飞行支付了费用的顾客。
Stephen Colbert of the CBS program “The Late Show” introduced segments of the webcast. After the landing, the R&B singer Khalid performed a new song.
CBS节目《深夜秀》(Late Show)主持人斯蒂芬·科尔伯特(Stephen Colbert)介绍了网络直播的内容。着陆后，R&B歌手哈立德(Khalid)演唱了一首新歌。
When the fuel was spent, Unity continued to coast upward to an altitude of 53.5 miles. The four people in back unbuckled and experienced about four minutes of floating before returning to their seats.
Mr. Branson was accompanied in the cabin by Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.
布兰森的机上随行人员包括公司的首席宇航员指导员贝丝·摩西(Beth Moses)；首席运维工程师科林·本内特(Colin Bennett)；以及政府事务和运营研究副总裁西丽莎·班德拉(Sirisha Bandla)。
Mr. Bennett said that he was busy with tasks during the first part of the flight and then he heard Ms. Moses shouting, “Don’t forget to look out the window.”
He did. “It’s very Zen,” Mr. Bennett said of the view of Earth below. “What jumped out at me were the colors and just how far away it looked. It felt like we were just so far up there, and I was just mesmerized.”
Ms. Bandla’s role was to evaluate another market Virgin Galactic is targeting: scientists doing research that takes advantage of minutes of microgravity. She conducted an experiment from the University of Florida which looked at how plants react to the changing conditions — particularly the swings in gravity — during the flight, part of research that could aid growing food on future long-duration space missions.
班德拉的任务是对维珍银河的另一个目标市场进行评估：让科学家研究出这几分钟微重力环境的利用办法。她在佛罗里达大学(University of Florida)进行了一项实验，观察植物在飞行期间不断变化——特别是重力波动——的环境里如何做出反应，这是帮助未来长期太空任务种植食物的研究的一部分。
As the space plane re-entered the atmosphere, the downward pull of gravity resumed. Unity glided to a landing back at the spaceport.
Michael Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, said the flight appeared to go flawlessly. “The ship looks pristine, no issues whatsoever,” Mr. Moses said.
or well over a decade, Mr. Branson, the irreverent 70-year-old British billionaire who runs a galaxy of Virgin companies, has repeatedly said he believed that commercial flights would soon begin. So did the 600 or so customers of Virgin Galactic who have paid $200,000 or more for their tickets to space and are still waiting. So did the taxpayers of New Mexico who paid $220 million to build Spaceport America, a futuristic vision in the middle of the desert, in order to attract Mr. Branson’s company.
After years and years of unmet promises, Virgin Galactic may begin flying the first paying passengers next year after two more test flights. But with tickets costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, this experience will, for now, remain out of financial reach for most people.
Virgin Galactic’s space plane is a scaled-up version of SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 captured the $10 million Ansari X Prize as the first reusable crewed spacecraft built by a nongovernmental organization to make it to space twice in two weeks.
维珍银河的太空飞机是“太空船1号”(SpaceShipOne)的放大版。“太空船1号”作为首个由非政府组织建造的可重复使用载人飞船，在两周时间里抵达太空两次，因此获得了2004年的安萨里X大奖(Ansari X Prize)，奖金为1000万美元。
Mr. Branson initially predicted commercial flights would begin by 2007. But development of the larger craft, SpaceShipTwo, stretched out.
Mr. Bezos’ flight is to take place about 200 miles to the southeast of Spaceport America in Van Horn, Texas, where his rocket company, Blue Origin, launches its New Shepard rocket and capsule.
贝佐斯的飞行将在距离得克萨斯州范霍恩的美国航天港东南约200英里处进行，他的火箭公司蓝色起源(Blue Origin)将在那里发射“新谢帕德”(New Shepard)号火箭和太空舱。
Although Blue Origin has yet to fly any people on New Shepard, 15 successful uncrewed tests of the fully automated system convinced the company it would be safe to put Mr. Bezos on the first flight with people aboard.
He will be joined by his brother, Mark, and Mary Wallace Funk, an 82-year-old pilot. In the 1960s, she was among a group of women who passed the same rigorous criteria that NASA used for selecting astronauts, but the space agency at the time had no interest in selecting women as astronauts. A fourth unnamed passenger paid $28 million in an auction for one of the seats.
与他同行的是他的弟弟马克和82岁的飞行员玛丽·华莱士·芬克(Mary Wallace Funk)。在1960年代，她是通过了NASA用于选择宇航员的严格标准的女性之一，但当时的NASA无意选择女宇航员。第四名未透露姓名的乘客在拍卖中为其中一个座位支付了2800万美元。
Neither Blue Origin nor Virgin Galactic flights go high enough or fast enough to enter orbit around Earth. Rather, these suborbital flights are more like giant roller coaster rides that allow passengers to float for a few minutes while admiring a view of Earth against the black backdrop of space.
Mr. Bezos’ company emphasized the rivalry with Virgin Galactic for space tourism passengers in a tweet on Friday. Blue Origin highlighted differences between its New Shepard rocket and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo including the fact that New Shepard flies higher, above the altitude of 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, that is often regarded as the boundary of space. However, the United States Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration set the boundary at 50 miles.
贝佐斯的公司周五发布了一条推文，强调了与维珍银河在太空旅游乘客方面的竞争。蓝色起源强调了其“新谢帕德”火箭与维珍银河的“太空船2号”(SpaceShipTwo)之间的差异，包括“新谢帕德”火箭飞得更高，高于海拔100公里或约62英里的高度，这通常被视为太空边界。然而，美国空军和联邦航空管理局(Federal Aviation Administration)将边界定为50英里。
The company also noted the size of the New Shepard capsule’s windows, and called Virgin Galactic’s Unity “a high-altitude plane” in contrast to New Shepard’s rocket.
Mr. Bezos on Sunday congratulated Mr. Branson and his fellow crew on their flight. “Can’t wait to join the club!” he said in an Instagram post.
At the news conference, Mr. Branson said, “It really wasn’t a race.” He added, “We wish Jeff the absolute best.”
Blue Origin has not yet announced a ticket price, and Virgin Galactic’s earlier quoted fare of $250,000 will probably rise. But on Sunday after his trip, Mr. Branson announced a sweepstakes that will give away two seats on a future Virgin Galactic flight.
But how many people are willing to spend as much as some houses cost for a few minutes of space travel?
Carissa Christensen, founder and chief executive of Bryce Space and Technology, an aerospace consulting firm, thinks there will be plenty. “Based on previous ticket sales, surveys and interviews,” she said in an email, “we see strong demand signals for multiple hundreds of passengers a year at current prices, with potential for thousands if prices drop significantly.”
航空航天咨询公司布莱斯太空技术(Bryce Space and Technology)的创始人兼首席执行官卡丽莎·克里斯滕森(Carissa Christensen)认为会有很多。她在一封电子邮件中说：“根据之前的门票销售、调查和采访，按当前价格，我们看到强烈的需求信号，每年会有几百名乘客，如果大幅降价，可能会有数千名乘客。”
Mr. Anderson of Space Adventures is less certain.
Two decades ago, his company did sell suborbital flights including a ticket to Ms. Funk, who goes by Wally. “Wally Funk was one of our first customers,” Mr. Anderson said. “That would have been like 1998.”
The ticket price then was $98,000.
At one point, about 200 people signed up, but none of the suborbital rocket companies were able to get their promised spacecraft close to flight. Space Adventures returned the money to Ms. Funk and the others.
Now this unproven suborbital market has whittled down to a battle of billionaires — Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos.
“If anybody can make money and make the market work for suborbital, it’s Branson and Bezos,” Mr. Anderson said. “They have the reach and the cachet.”