Richard Branson is getting closer to his trip to space.
For years, the British billionaire has dreamed of developing a spacecraft that could fly paying customers to the edge of space and back. And now, after a third successful mission out of the atmosphere Saturday morning, his company Virgin Galactic has said he could get his chance later this year.
On Saturday, Virgin Galactic said on Twitter that a pair of its pilots, C.J. Sturckow and Dave Mackay, fired the engine of the spaceplane known as SpaceShipTwo Unity, pointed the nose toward the skies over New Mexico and roared to a height of more than 50 miles, the threshold at which NASA recognizes that a person has reached space. The spacecraft then fell back toward Earth, as the pilots guided it back to the tarmac of Spaceport America, which the company says will be home to its space tourism business.
The company did not provide a precise figure for how high the craft flew, but the flight marked a significant milestone for Virgin Galactic and could pave the way for the 600 customers who have put down deposits on tickets to finally get the chance to fly after waiting years for the opportunity.
The successful mission comes at a critical time. Branson’s venture is facing competition from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which is also working to fly paying passengers on suborbital trips to the edge of space. After flying 15 successful missions on its New Shepard rocket and spacecraft, Blue Origin recently announced it would fly people for the first time on July 20, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
It is auctioning off a seat on that trip and the proceeds would benefit the company’s nonprofit, Club for the Future, which encourages young people to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. The highest bid as of Saturday morning was $2.8 million, but the company expects that to go up during a live auction on June 12.
Blue Origin has not said what it would charge for seats. In the past, Virgin has charged as much as $250,000, but it has said that ticket prices are likely to increase, at least in the short term.
Saturday’s flight was the first time Virgin Galactic has reached space in more than two years. In that time the company moved its operations from Mojave, Calif., to New Mexico. It also went public through a merger with a New York investment firm and appointed a new chief executive, Michael Colglazier, a former executive at Disney who is working to expand the company’s operations worldwide as well as build a fleet of spacecraft.
His vision he said is in line with “the roots of this company — to open space up,” he said in a recent interview with The Post. “It may not happen in the first year, it may not be the fifth year. But 10 years from now, 15 years from now this is going to be a normalized thing, and everyone should be aspiring to go to space.”
The company’s last flight attempt, in December, was aborted just as the engine fired. The company said the abort was triggered by electromagnetic interference from a flight computer system that caused the motor to shut down. The pilots then flew the vehicle back down to the ground safely. That issue had been resolved, the company said, before Saturday’s flight.
The company has said that if Saturday’s flight went well, it would follow it with another test flight with two pilots and four company employees on board to test out the cabin. Branson would fly on the flight after that, which the company is planning for later this year.
Branson has dreamed of going to space for years and founded Virgin Galactic, what he calls the “world’s first commercial spaceline,” in 2004. When the company first reached space with a pair of pilots in 2018, Branson was on the flight line with his son watching. When commentators announced that the spacecraft had reached space, he wept openly.
“It’s been 14 long years to get here,” he said at the time. “We’ve had tears, real tears, and moments of joy. So the tears of today were tears of joy. It was maybe tears of relief as well.”