Analysis: Branson realises space dream as he flies to the “edge of space”

by | Jul 12, 2021 | History, Launches, Seradata News, Space tourism, Suborbital, Virgin Galactic

On 11 July, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson fulfilled a boyhood dream when he flew as ‘Astronaut 001” on his company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle, VSS Unity. He described it as “the experience of a lifetime” and “just magical”.

The Unity 22 mission began from New Mexico’s Spaceport America at 1440 GMT with the lift-off of the ‘Eve’ carrier aircraft, named after Branson’s mother. The Unity spacecraft separated from Eve at 1525 GMT and fired its engine for around 60 seconds to place it on a suborbital trajectory for a few short minutes of microgravity before gliding back to New Mexico for a perfect landing at 1538 GMT. Less than an hour later, Branson was awarded his ‘astronaut wings’ by veteran space station astronaut Chris Hadfield.

VSS Unity under its own power following release from its mothership

VSS Unity under its own power following release from its mothership. Courtesy of Virgin Galactic


Along with pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, Branson shared the cabin with three Virgin Galactic employees: chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and vice president of government affairs and research operations Sirisha Bandla. Apart from a poor, sometime non-existent, communications link between the cabin and the ground, the mission appeared to go without a hitch (albeit for the obligatory delay due to weather concerns). Along with some capable presenters in the studio, American comedian Stephen Colbert provided a typically self-centred commentary on the mission, making the event seem more like a tennis match than a space mission. Indeed, it would have received better media coverage in Europe in the following 24 hours were it not for a certain football match!

As part of his presentation, Branson announced an initiative intended to give more people a chance to become astronauts. Virgin Galactic plans to give away two tickets on a commercial flight in early 2022 as part of a sweepstake initiative with the charitable fund-raising platform Omaze. Pitching the initiative as a “self-propelling way” of allowing those who couldn’t otherwise afford “to go to space”, he said that “If enough people over the world participate, it just means the charity can keep on doing tickets for people.”

Arguably, of more long-term importance is the question of commercial viability: how will Virgin Galactic fare against its arch-rival Blue Origin in the space tourism stakes? By bringing his participation in “validating the space experience” forward, Branson beat Jeff Bezos into space by nine days (assuming Bezos’ New Shepard flight occurs as planned on 20 July). However, this is simply part of a battle of the billionaires for ‘space bragging rights’. Beyond a few early adopters, will budding astronauts feel they are receiving value for money from a quarter-million-dollar ticket that allows them just a few minutes of weightlessness? Interestingly, in a public relations coup, it was revealed before the flight that SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk has also booked a ride on the Virgin Galactic suborbital launcher.

The crucial marketing issue is, however, the definition of ‘space’. The widely recognised boundary to the space environment – acknowledged by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the record-keeping body for astronautics – is the Kármán line at an altitude of 100 km. However, NASA and the US military defines the boundary as beginning at an altitude of 50 miles (about 80.5 km), which has historically allowed pilots of the X-15 rocket plane to claim their astronaut wings.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic mission reached an apogee of a reported 282,000 feet (which is about 86 km), while New Shepard is designed to exceed 100 km. In fact, Blue Origin Tweeted on 9 July: “From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line.”  Interestingly, the BBC’s reporting of Branson’s mission included the phrase “to the edge of space”, which suggests a in-built recognition of 100 km as the key figure of merit. Expect to hear a lot more about this figure in the run up to the Bezos flight on 20 July.

About Seradata

Seradata produce the renowned Seradata database. Trusted by over 100 of the world’s leading Space organisations, Seradata is a fully queryable database used for market analysis, failure/risk assessment, spectrum analysis and space situational awareness (SSA).

For more information go to

Related Articles

Galactic Energy of China suffers first launch failure of its Ceres-1 rocket losing insured Jilin 1 Gaofen 04B-01

Having been launched at 0459 GMT on the morning of 21 September it later filtered out that the Ceres-1 Y11 Read more

Starlink Group 6-17 is launched by Falcon 9

SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9v1.2FT Block 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA at 0338 GMT on 20 September Read more

Electron KS rocket has another failure losing Acadia 2 radar Earth observation satellite

Rocket Lab launched Electron KS from Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand, at 0655 GMT on 19 September 2023. The Electron was Read more

China launches Long March 2D carrying Yaogan 39 trio

China successfully launched a Long March 2D/2 (CZ-2D/2) from Xichang Satellite Launch Centre, Sichuan Province, China at 0312 GMT on Read more

SpaceX launches Falcon 9 with Starlink Group 6-16 aboard

SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9v1.2FT Block 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA at 0338 GMT on 16 September Read more

Soyuz MS-24 is launched into orbit on Soyuz 2-1a from Baikonur on way to ISS

Soyuz MS-24 was launched via a Soyuz 2-1a rocket into orbit at 1544 GMT on 15 September 2023 from Baikonur Read more

Victus Nox payload is launched by Firefly Alpha in rapid response launch test

There was an unexpected launch of the Firefly Alpha rocket (its third flight) which took place from Vandenberg, California, at Read more

Film of ancient ‘alien bodies’ is displayed at Congress of Mexico hearing

Following on from similar US Congressional hearings on UFOs which appeared to have footage of flying UFOs, at a Mexican Read more

Chinese Long March 6A rocket carries new Yaogan 40 triplet to LEO

Launching at 0430 GMT on 10 September a Chinese Long March 6A (CZ-6A) rocket carried the Yaogan 40 mission into Read more




nasaspacexecoreviewsissesaArianespacevideochina25virgin galacticfalcon 9ULAFalcon 9v1.2FT Block 5RoscosmosevaDGAspacewalkaviation weekaressoyuzIGTInternational Space StationBeidouawardsspaceBlue OriginSatellite broadcastingRocket LabStarlinkrussiamoonCargo Return VehicleboeingAirbus DSmarsblogresearchISROOneWeborionspaceshiptwojaxaimpacthyperboladelaymarsdemocratrocketEutelsatobamagoogle lunar prizelunarhypertextlaunchVegaSEStourismbarack obamaconstellationfiguresnorthspaceflightthales alenia spacenode 2fundedRaymond LygoIntelsatLockheed Martin2009Express MD-2Atlas Vromess2Elon Muskdassault aviationaviationLucy2008wk2sstlukradiotestmissilesuborbitaldocking portexplorationAriane 5 ECAVirgin OrbitinternetChina Manned Space EngineeringAriane 5SLSsts-1222010flightspace tourismNorthrop Grummancotsnewspapermissile defensegalileospaceportExpress AMU 1Long March 2D/2Electronbuildspace stationaltairLong March 4Cinternational astronautical congresssoyuz 2-1ashuttleProton MEuropean Space AgencyLauncherOneCosmosIntelsat 23scaled compositeshanleybudgetrulesnew yorkAriane 6shenzhouspace shuttleatvVietnamcongressMojaveboldenLong March 2COrbital ATKnew shepardInmarsatGuiana Space CenteriaccnesksclawsSpace Systems/LoralUK Space AgencyLong March 4BILSUS Air Forceprotonlunar landerTalulah RileyApollodarpaFalcon 9v1.2 Block 5Kuaizhou 1AVega CSkylonAstriumeupicturebaseusaastronautdragonlanderfiveeventTelesatSSLElectron KSNorth KoreaAprilSNCWednesdayinterviewSea Launchfalcon50thcustomerlinkLong Marchatlantissuccessor