Sunday morning, Richard Branson launched into Earth's upper atmosphere on a craft his Virgin Galactic empire has spent a decade and a half perfecting. By Sunday afternoon, the serial entrepreneur was back on Earth, raving about his brief trip to the cosmos. In fact, Branson says his quick flight amongst the stars was nothing short of an "experience of a lifetime."
"It's just so lovely to be able to do something in these days of COVID where kids can be awestruck and they can get excited," Branson told ITV News once he returned planet-side. The billionaire then expressed his pleasure in being able to take part in an experience "of a lifetime."
Technically Sunday's launch was the 22nd test flight of VSS Unity and Virgin Galactic, and the first such flight with a full crew in the space plane's cabin. Officially, Branson was included in the launch to test "objectives related to the cabin and customer experience."
"Today is a landmark achievement for the Company and a historic moment for the new commercial space industry," Virgin Galactic chief executive Michael Colglazier said in a press release distributed by the company. "With each successful mission we are paving the way for the next generation of astronauts. I want to thank our talented team, including our pilots and crew, whose dedication and commitment made today possible. They are helping open the door for greater access to space – so it can be for the many and not just for the few."
At its fastest, VSS Unity achieved Mach 3 speeds before climbing to its target destination of 53.5 miles above the Earth's surface — the internationally accepted distance of "outer space." The entire trip took roughly 90 minutes.
"I have dreamt about this moment since I was a child, but nothing could have prepared me for the view of Earth from space," Branson added in the press release. "We are at the vanguard of a new space age. As Virgin's founder, I was honoured to test the incredible customer experience as part of this remarkable crew of mission specialists and now astronauts. I can't wait to share this experience with aspiring astronauts around the world."
He continued, "Our mission is to make space more accessible to all. In that spirit, and with today's successful flight of VSS Unity, I'm thrilled to announce a partnership with Omaze and Space for Humanity to inspire the next generation of dreamers. For so long, we have looked back in wonder at the space pioneers of yesterday. Now, I want the astronauts of tomorrow to look forward and make their own dreams come true."