Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has successfully completed his first flight into space, in a demonstration of confidence for the technology that secures the future of commercial space tourism. Jenny Southan reports

Can you imagine what would have happened if Unity 22 had exploded with Richard Branson on board? It would have been hard to imagine that any consumer would be willing to book a trip into space with Virgin Galactic after that.

Thankfully, the company’s 22nd test flight on July 11 was a huge success, achieving an altitude of 53.5 miles and granting its passengers a few minutes of glorious weightlessness, along with incredible views of planet Earth.

Not only was the mission the first with a full Virgin Galactic crew on board but the first in-flight livestream broadcast of the spaceflight experience. It was also the first time a billionaire had been in space. (A recording of the livestream can be accessed on Virgin Galactic’s YouTube channel.)Unity 22, Virgin GalacticIn a press conference after, Branson said: “I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid, but honestly nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space. The whole thing was just magical.”

VSS Unity achieved a speed of Mach 3 (three times faster than the speed of sound) after being released from the mothership, VMS Eve. In space, Branson shared some inspiring words, while the crew bounced joyously around the cabin in Zero G.Unity 22, Virgin GalacticHe said: “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. To the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do.”

After Branson himself enjoyed the feeling of weightlessness, the aircraft made its descent, gliding smoothly to a runway and landing at Spaceport America.Richard Branson Unity 22 Virgin GalacticIn total, the journey took just over an hour. The trip gave a glimpse of what the “joy ride” into space with Virgin Galactic will look like for future astronauts when the company launches commercial services following the completion of its test flight programme. (There will be two more test flights in 2021 – the current prototype space craft will also be replaced by two new models that are easier to maintain.)

According to the BBC, Virgin Galactic hopes to start commercial flights next year. It also quoted Branson as saying: “I’ve had my notebook with me and I’ve written down 30 or 40 little things that will make the experience for the next person who goes to space with us that much better. The only way sometimes you can find these little things is to get in a spaceship and go to space and experience it for yourself.”

Unity 22 Virgin GalacticMichael Colglazier, chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic, said: “Today is a landmark achievement for the company and a historic moment for the new commercial space industry. 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.”

In an interview with the Financial Times, Colglazier also said that he wants to operate more than one tourist flight a day into space, and from multiple spaceports around the world (Puglia in Italy and Cornwall in the UK have been tipped in the past).

He said: “At every spaceport we’re going to target about 400 flights a year. I’m expecting high single-digit numbers to low double-digit numbers of spaceships [at each site] in order to kind of reach numbers like that.”Unity 22 crew, Virgin GalacticIn a statement, Branson said: “I have dreamt about this moment since I was a child, but nothing could have prepared me for the view of Earth from space. 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.”Richard Branson Unity 22 Virgin GalacticBranson 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.”Unity 22, Virgin GalacticBranson was accompanied by pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, and Virgin Galactic employees Beth Moses, Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla. Once back on the ground, Branson and the latter trio were presented with commercial astronaut wings by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who is a former commander aboard the International Space Station.

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