A little after 10:00 a.m. EST – 7:00 a.m. local time – on December 13, 2018, a spacecraft fires off its rocket and shoots upwards. Then, miles above the Earth, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity carries human beings into space. And it’s the first time that the company has ever sent a flight this high.
Established in 2004, Virgin Galactic is the space-travel division of the Virgin Group. Its purpose is to create commercial spaceships, so that it can send customers on suborbital journeys and conduct scientific investigations. It also plans to take human beings into orbit eventually, although progress has been slower than originally hoped.
Virgin Galactic’s stated mission shows grand ambition, as it speaks of striving to become “the Spaceline for Earth.” The company claims that it hopes to use space for humanity’s benefit, seeing it as likely to provide solutions to some of the difficulties that life on Earth faces. But at the same time, it also recognizes the importance of giving customers a great time.
Virgin Galactic’s founder is British entrepreneur Richard Branson. Impressively, Branson started his first firm at 16 before going onto establish the Virgin Group. In the business’ early days, it focused on the sale of records, consisting of a mail-order company and shops called Virgin Megastores. The Virgin brand subsequently boomed in the 1980s when Branson founded an airline, Virgin Atlantic.
Eventually, Branson’s mighty endeavors earned him global renown. And recognition wasn’t lacking at home in the U.K., either. There, the Prince of Wales would make him Sir Richard in 2000, acknowledging his “services to entrepreneurship.” The businessman also gained fame for his spirit of adventure, of course, which he often expressed in attempts to smash world records.
In 1985, for example, Branson set off with the aim of making the quickest maritime voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in human history. Unfortunately, his boat, the Virgin Atlantic Challenger, capsized, and he had to be rescued. The entrepreneur did break the record the following year, though. And a year after that, he once again crossed the Atlantic – this time in a hot air balloon.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Branson decided that he also wanted to make history in outer space. And he plans to take others along for the ride, too: the goal for Virgin Galactic’s program is to take members of the public beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The would-be astronauts will reportedly fork out $250,000 each for the privilege of out-of-this-world views and the sensation of being weightless.
This high cost isn’t putting off potential astronauts, however, with at least 600 having reportedly shown firm interest in 2017. And Branson fired them up in an interview with CNBC in October of 2018. He said, “We will be in space with people not too long after [the test flight], so we have got a very, very exciting couple of months ahead.”
Virgin Galactic’s business model is to take lots of people into space by being able to turn its spacecraft round quickly. Its vessel is designed to be lifted to 50,000 feet by a carrier aircraft, which has been dubbed VMS Eve, before entering the cosmos and returning to Earth under its own power. The vehicle itself – and others like it – which are known collectively under the name SpaceShipTwo, are based on a predecessor called SpaceShipOne.
SpaceShipOne, which was the first private manned space vessel, was built by Scaled Composites. Said company is the brainchild of a designer called Bert Rutan and received financial support from Microsoft bigwig Paul Allen. SpaceShipOne flew for the first time in the summer of 2004 and would later bag the Ansari X Prize – worth a cool $10 million – for its successful nongovernmental journeys into space.
The development of SpaceShipTwo didn’t come without problems, however. For example, in July 2007 an explosion during testing cost the lives of three Scaled Composites employees. This set back the schedule for Virgin Galactic, making its plan to begin operations in 2009 impossible. But an even bigger disaster was to follow five years later.
On Halloween in 2014 SpaceShipTwo crashed mid-flight during its testing process. And not only was the spacecraft itself destroyed, but one of the pilots lost his life, with the other ending up in hospital. As a result, a team from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) looked into what had caused the spaceship to disintegrate.
The NTSB found that pilot Michael Alsbury – who tragically died – had unwittingly unlocked the craft’s braking system too early. SpaceShipTwo deploys a “feathering” method, you see, in which its tail is used to ensure a safe descent back to Earth. And this makes the ship more stable and gives it more drag. However, Alsbury seemingly hadn’t completed the operation properly – and this had apparently been the fatal error.
In the aftermath of the accident, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides spoke to the press at a news briefing. He said, “Space is hard, and today was a tough day.” The company also asserted that it remained committed to keeping its people safe. A statement read, “At Virgin Galactic, we are dedicated to opening the space frontier, while keeping safety as our ‘North Star.’”
An expert in space policy, university professor emeritus John Logsdon, shared his perspective on the accident with Space.com in November 2014. “The nature of test flights is that failure is one of the possibilities,” he said. “If you look at the history of test flights of high-performance airplanes, there have been a lot of accidents. It’s unfortunate but not totally unexpected.”
Indeed, the crash didn’t seem to scare off other test pilots as the program pressed on. And a December 2018 flight would represent a historic moment for Virgin Galactic; it would be the first time that the company had sent humans into space. These brave people were Mark “Forger” Stucky, who piloted the craft, and Frederick C.J. Sturckow, who took the co-pilot’s chair.
Stucky, for his part, is an accomplished airman, having served in the United States Air Force, Marines and Navy. He gained combat experience in the first Gulf War and later returned to the fray in the Iraq War. Six years as a NASA test pilot left him frustrated by the limited opportunities on offer, however. And as a result, he was more than willing to take his chance at being an astronaut with the Virgin Galactic project.
So, on the morning of December 17, 2018, Stucky took the helm of the VSS Unity as it awaited takeoff at the launch site in the Mojave Desert, California. This is a perfect place for spacecraft testing because there are no towns nearby, and it offers controlled airspace and a supersonic corridor.
And this corridor would come very much in handy, since the spacecraft was expected to travel at almost three times the speed of light after being released by the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. The plan was for the Unity to be set free once it had reached 50,000 feet, after which point it would use its own power to make its way into space.
The idea was for the spaceliner to reach a peak distance of a little over 50 miles from Earth. However, there’s some dispute over whether that truly constitutes “space.” According to the U.S. Air Force and NASA, though, it is. Go beyond 50 miles above the planet and the military or the space agency will award you your “wings” as an astronaut.
However, some maintain that space begins at the Karman line. This is a point that’s situated 62 miles from the Earth’s surface. And it’s more or less where you enter into orbit around the planet. Nevertheless, 50 miles is what Virgin Galactic considers to be the border of outer space; the company intends its craft to be suborbital, in any case.
That said, some of Virgin’s earlier plans do suggest a more ambitious future. In 2012 the company claimed that SpaceShipTwo would eventually climb almost 70 miles above the Earth – way past the Karman line. But for now, at least, Virgin Galactic has probably sent a horizontal-launch spacecraft higher than anyone else, which in itself is an amazing achievement.
Regardless of any differences of opinion, the Federal Aviation Administration said that it would give Stucky and Sturckow their commercial astronaut wings in 2019. Sturckow, it turns out, already has a set of NASA wings, since he’s previously piloted the Space Shuttle. Plus, Virgin Galactic hailed them as the first people in space since 2011’s concluding shuttle flight.
Given the significance of the mission, then, it’s hardly a surprise that a large crowd gathered in the Mojave Desert to watch the take-off. But even those who weren’t present can share in the excitement, too, since Virgin Atlantic provided video footage of the momentous occasion. And the film begins with the massive, double-hulled jet powering into the air with Unity slung below it. The spacecraft is then released, and its motor fires up.
Then, the camera switches to give us an epic view of the Earth from above. We can see our remarkable planet stretching out below, with intricate patterns of land and sea showing up beneath the light cloud cover. Next, we’re treated to a stunning shot of the globe that’s marked out vividly against the black of the void.
At this point, one of the pilots says, “The view is incredible.” And it certainly is, with the curvature of the Earth standing out dramatically against the dark background. Viewers on YouTube, meanwhile, agreed. One user wrote, “That’s awesome! Yeah, eventually Flat-Earthers are going to realize how stupid they are with all these private flights to space.”
As the spaceship approaches “apogee,” which means the highest point in its journey, we get to see a paper star float through the cockpit. Mission control communicates with the crew, saying, “Spaceship Unity, welcome to space.” One of the pilots responds, “Copy, base. Million-dollar view.” And we have the privilege of sharing that view: the Earth laid out in all its splendor.
Amazingly, once the craft’s sojourn in outer space nears its end, the vessel completes an artful loop-the-loop. And we thus see the Earth rotate, so that it’s now seemingly above the spaceship. One viewer appeared to be pretty blown away by this sight, writing, “Can’t believe they did a victory roll at the end!” Another commenter, meanwhile, pointed out that the craft had in fact rolled twice.
Finally, the spaceship glides back into the atmosphere. This time, the feathering system seemingly works without encountering any glitches, and the craft coasts back down to solid ground. It slows on the runway, the epic mission drawing to a close. And the watching crowd is left cheering and yelling as the two pilots step out of the cockpit safe and sound.
All in all, the mission lasted for about an hour and a quarter, and Branson couldn’t contain his delight at the success. “Today, as I stood among a truly remarkable group of people with our eyes on the stars, we saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled,” he stated on the company’s website. “It was an indescribable feeling: joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is yet to come.”
And Branson promised that more was indeed to come. He said, “We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test program, which will see the rocket motor burn for longer and VSS Unity fly still faster and higher towards giving thousands of private astronauts an experience which provides a new, planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and the cosmos.”
Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic CEO Whitesides echoed Branson’s sentiments. “What we witnessed today is more compelling evidence that commercial space is set to become one of the 21st century’s defining industries,” he stated. And internet users shared some of this excitement, with close to a million of them having watched Virgin Galactic’s own video of the mission.
Plus, the comments – more than 6,000 of them in all – were overwhelmingly positive. One user seemingly summed up the feelings of many, writing, “Amazing!! Congratulations, Virgin Galactic.” And this was echoed by a user going by the name of Jesus Christ, who described the video as “awesome.”
Meanwhile, another viewer found one sequence of the clip, featuring a view of the rocket’s exhaust with the rapidly disappearing landscape in the background, particularly captivating. They wrote, “I can’t stop looping that scene – a true visual masterpiece.” And a different user had a compliment for the entrepreneur responsible for the space-travel feat, saying, “The world needs more people like Branson and [SpaceX founder Elon] Musk.”
Moreover, Virgin Galactic’s photo announcement on its Facebook page garnered more than 2,500 positive reactions and in excess of 100 comments. One commenter, Melody P. Gallagher, had actually been present at the launch and landing. And she wrote, “Congratulations to everyone involved in this epic day! [I] had the pleasure to be there and experience the elation.”
However, internet users weren’t the only people delighted with the success of the mission. Virgin Galactic also foresees its spacecraft being useful in the world of science, after all, and Unity actually carried out several experiments for NASA. A new development for SpaceShipTwo, the studies looked at concepts such as dust behavior, reducing vibrations at different stages of the flight and interactions in microgravity.
A campaign manager for NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, Ryan Dibley, also made a statement about the Virgin mission. He said, “The anticipated addition of SpaceShipTwo to a growing list of commercial vehicles supporting suborbital research is exciting.” And he explained the broader benefits, too, adding, “Inexpensive access to suborbital space greatly benefits the technology research and broader spaceflight communities.”
Meanwhile, Branson was sufficiently inspired by the mission that he wrote a letter to his grandkids, which he published on the Virgin website. In it, he said, “As I watched Unity and her brave pilots soar upwards into the black sky of space today, my vision blurred by tears, I could hear your great grandad whisper once again in my ear, ‘Life is wonderful.’”
In February 2019 Unity headed for space once again. And for the first time, three people were aboard the flight. One of them, Beth Moses, is an astronaut instructor, and she joined the trip to check out the design-side of things. The mission was a success yet again, with the craft soaring to just shy of 56 miles – creeping ever closer to the Karman line.
What’s more, with this trip Unity became the first ever commercial spacecraft to carry a woman beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Moses’ brief was to make sure that the ride would be comfortable enough for future passengers who may soon follow in her wake. And it doesn’t seem like it’ll be too long before paying customers are able to enjoy that “million-dollar view” first-hand.