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  • Kyle Chua

Virgin Galactic Completes First Fully Crewed Flight to Space, Sirisha Bandla Becomes 2nd Ever India-

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

British billionaire Sir Richard Branson launched himself to the edge of space aboard Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane on Sunday, 11 July, completing the first fully crewed test flight of the astro-tourism company he founded in 2004.

Virgin Galactic Unity Spaceplane

Credit: Reuters

Aboard the flight with him were a crew of pilots and Galactic employees, including Sirisha Bandla, who became only the second India-born woman to ever go to space. The first was Kalpana Chawla who died in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003. Others aboard were two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, along with mission specialists Beth Moses and Colin Bennett.

Bandla is the vice president of government affairs for Virgin Galactic. After the historic flight, many from India sent congratulatory messages on social media. The country’s Vice President Venkaiah Naidu tweeted about how she will become an inspiration to young girls in India.

VSS Unity, the name of the spaceplane, was affixed to the jet-bearing carrier VMS Eve when it took off from the runway of Spaceport America, a state-owned facility that Virgin Galactic was partly leasing in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The entire plane flew horizontally as it slowly climbed in altitude. At about 46,000 feet, the VSS Unity, which was about the size of a private jet, was released from the carrier and ignited its rocket engine, continuing its soar upwards at a supersonic speed. It reached a height of about 53 miles above ground.

At that point, the rocket was shut down and the plane was suspended in weightlessness, letting Branson and his crew experience a few minutes of microgravity and catch glimpses of Earth and space. The ship then shifted to re-entry mode, curling its wings upward as it descended back to the planet’s atmosphere and glided back down onto the runway. The whole flight took about an hour, as reported by Reuters.

“I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth,” said Branson in a video recorded from space during the apex of the plane’s climb.

Sirisha Bandla Virgin Galactic

Credit: Getty Images

After touching back down, Branson was greeted by friends, family, industry executives, future customers and other well-wishers who were on-site for the event. The billionaire also celebrated with his crewmates, dousing one another with champagne. He was even photographed carrying Sirisha Bandla on his shoulders during the festivities.

Branson’s successful flight reportedly marks the 22nd test flight of the Unity spaceplane and the company’s fourth crewed mission to space.

Virgin Galactic Descent

Credit: Reuters

The event was live-streamed to the public online, hosted by television talk show host and comedian Stephen Colbert. Grammy-nominated R&B singer Khalid was also at the event to perform his new single.

Virgin Galactic plans to hold at least two more test flights of the spaceplane in the coming months before allowing the public to book tickets in 2022. CEO Michael Colglazier said that 600 wealthy people from 58 countries have already booked reservations for the flight, which is priced at US$250,000 per ticket. Among the 600 are some notable celebrities like Tom Hanks, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Ashton Kutcher and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Branson previously revealed that the goal is for Virgin Galactic to have flights cost US$40,000 per seat as it ramps up the service in the years to come. Colglazier added that the company wants to eventually build enough spaceplanes to accommodate roughly 400 flights annually at the spaceport, which equates to about one flight per day.

Richard Branson Virgin Galactic

Credit: Getty Images

“We’re here to make space more accessible to all,” said Branson. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”

Branson is not the only billionaire in the space industry. His flight, which was announced a little over a week ago, came just nine days ahead of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ scheduled 20 July flight aboard his own rocket ship.

Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, claims that it will offer a better spaceflight experience with its New Shepard ship being able to reach the Kármán line, which is about 62 miles off the ground. The aeronautics body defines the line as the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space.

Branson, however, insists that Bezos is a friendly rival rather than competition, saying: “We wish Jeff the absolute best and that he will get up and enjoy his flight.”

Another player in the so-called “billionaire space race” is Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX looks to send its first crew of civilians into orbit by September. But there’s clearly no bitterness between Musk and Branson, with the former even visiting the latter a day before his flight to wish him luck.

Musk also said he already bought a ticket to board one of Virgin Galactic’s commercial flights in the future.

While space travel is still an incredibly expensive proposition, here’s to hoping even normal people like you and I will be able to make the trip one day.


Written by Kyle Chua

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