Space travel and space science have seen several historic milestones in the past years, from reusable rockets to the first space helicopter on Mars. But while others have their sights on longer travels, exploration, and colonization, some companies are aiming to start a new commercial industry a bit closer to Earth. Virgin Galactic just took one step closer to that goal in its latest test flight that carried not just any human into space but its own founder, Sir Richard Branson.
Virgin Galactic’s spaceships are already one of a kind, even without this achievement. Unlike everyone’s idea of conventional rockets, the mothership VMS Eve takes off from a runway like a plane. After reaching a certain altitude, the VSS Unity detached from Eve, reached an altitude of 53.5 miles before gliding back to Earth, and landing safely on a runway at Spaceport America, exactly like an airplane.
The whole flight lasted only 15 minutes, but it was a historic one, especially for one of the Unity’s passengers. Sir Richard Branson can perhaps boast of beating Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to being the first to reach space. Of course, Branson painted the achievement as an inspiration for the next generation of dreamers, but it doesn’t hurt to have a media festival even before that monumental space flight.
Virgin Galactic’s ultimate goal is, of course, a new space tourism industry where passengers will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to experience that zero-gravity environment and see the stars a little bit closer, even if just for a few minutes. That puts the company directly at odds with Bezos’ Blue Origins, which wants to cater to the same crowd but with a more traditional form of spacecraft.
Unsurprisingly, Blue Origins seemed ready to engage in a bit of a pissing contest on Twitter. Bezos’ company not so subtly hinted that Virgin Galactic isn’t really reaching space, at least not by the higher figures set by an international standard that the US doesn’t follow. Branson’s unexpected flight, however, was also seen to be a direct challenge to Bezos, who will be taking his own space flight on July 20.