The sentence “71-year old billionaire Richard Branson is being launched to space from a New Mexico desert nine days before billionaire Jeff Bezos” is illogical at first. It’s a Mad Lib. A bot-sent email that goes straight into the spam folder.
It is also reality. Bezos made the same leap into space on July 11. It is tempting to think of these wealthy men in space as a new microtrend among the elite. They are like people who came out from quarantine and decided to escape to the stratosphere for a while, much like how you thought going to the movies would be fun. These billionaires who founded spaceflight companies, including Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin by Bezos, as well as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, have been moving towards this moment since the 2000s. It’s here: Commercial flights to space are now possible. It’s not only for them, it’s for us all. That’s at least what billionaires claim.
Although all three men desire to send more people to space, their priorities and focus differ. Branson promotes space tourism as an unforgettable, life-changing experience and not suggesting that people should live permanently on Mars. Bezos’ vision of space includes moving large portions of manufacturing from Earth. Musk believes that humans need to establish space settlements as soon as possible, including a permanent lunar base. This is because we need an emergency backup in the event of something catastrophic happening on Earth. Musk has stated that SpaceX could be able to take humans to Mars in 2026.
However, billionaires must prove that it is possible before anything like this happens – and it is likely to be a long time off. They want to be a big deal. They are not just sending humans into space, although that has been done before. But they also show that private companies can send people into space. A wealthy man can leave Earth, just as you can. It’s hard to imagine anyone not wanting to see the world from above Earth. Didn’t all of us have two passions as children? Space and dinosaurs. Only space is possible, but don’t be surprised to hear that billionaires are quietly working on their own version of Jurassic Park.
Virgin Galactic hopes to be the first company to pay for space travel by 2022, based on the results of its test flight last Wednesday. The only problem is that not everyone will be able to realize this childhood dream. Tickets may cost anywhere from $200,000 to $250,000.
This means that I cannot afford to go to space right now. It will take me a while to get back to you about what it was like. What is it like to see a very wealthy person go into space? This I can tell, in extreme detail and with a lot of humor.
It was surreal to witness the entire process unfold, no matter how strange it may seem to read “Richard Branson is being launched in space.” Spaceport America, which claims to be the “first purposely-built commercial spaceport in the country,” is partially responsible for the appearance of Spaceport America in New Mexico’s desert. It appears as a ghost in the middle of an arid area called Jornada del Muerto. It looks like a flying saucer has crashed into the dirt from certain angles. During the day, you can see pools of water in the distance as you drive down the deserted road to Spaceport. Each one fails to appear once your approach them.
However, Spaceport was still dark and gloomy when we arrived at Spaceport on July 11. The press bus was about an hour from the launch site when it left Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second-largest city.
This part of the U.S. has one problem: you are constantly at risk of crossing borders. To get to the East Coast, you will need to fly to El Paso, Texas on the southwestern border of the state. Mexico is to the south and New Mexico lies to its west. A giant red X hovers over a number of low-rise buildings as you drive from El Paso to the airport. It’s a sculpture located in Ciudad Juarez Mexico. This perfectly sums up the fact you are at a crossroads.
Spaceport is attempting to become the next frontier in this country, a vertical border. We crossed the U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint on our way to the facility. Two border agents were carrying small flashlights and hopped on the bus. It was still dark outside. Everybody was asked if he or she is a U.S citizen. One agent checked the bus’s bathroom for stowaways.
Spaceport’s parking lot was open to the public when I arrived. A small Virgin Galactic plane was at the gate, announcing that the port’s star tenant was here. Two large tents were set up for VIPs and the press. There were TikTokers, who were invited to record the historic event. Many of those milling around in the VIP tent already have their Virgin Galactic tickets. However, they are not called VIPs or ticket holders. They are called “Future Astronauts”. The DJ encouraged guests to use the hashtag #Unity22 on social media, periodically urging them to do so over the speakers.
Promo videos were shown on loop on site’s TV screens throughout the day. One showed the six astronauts (including the pilots) and their roles during flight. Branson is Astronaut 101, and he’s responsible for testing the “customer experiences.” A clip was also shown of Branson riding his bike to Spaceport, hugging his crew mates, and then being asked to put on his flight suit. Although the live stream claimed that the video was from earlier today, people on the ground were talking about Branson’s bike ride to Spaceport this morning. However, Reuters later disproved the claim – the bike footage was recorded July 5. This small detail is funny, but also baffling and represents the absurdity of the entire event. What was the significance of the bike? Did it send an environmental message? It was just more beautiful?
There was also whispering that Elon Musk was also at Spaceport, which supports the argument that there isn’t a cutthroat competition among the billionaires who are spacefaring, despite the headlines. They support one another and cheer each other on. Branson later confirmed that Musk visited him at 3:00 a.m. in a press conference.
Unity 22 was more than a space launch. It’s spectacle, pageantry, and it’s a vibe. There was a random mix of upbeat pop music playing on the speakers, including Dynamite from BTS. But, at one point, Hotel California began blaring, and I wondered if this was the beginning of heat stroke.
As the sun rose over the mountains, the murmuring became louder and everyone wondered in which direction to look. It was hard to remember what I have seen on TV. The Unity 22 launch didn’t start from a launchpad. Instead, the shuttle would launch from the ground and then slowly shed its first rockets as fuel ran out. Commercial spaceflight should not be reliant on single-use rockets that are expensive to build and then become junk after one launch.
Virgin Galactic used an air launch method instead. A mothership plane, Mothership Eve, would take off from the runway at 50,000 feet. The spaceship VSS Unity would then detach itself from Eve. Its rocket motor would turn on and it would fly up to 53 miles above the Earth.
This launch has another aspect. Although it was convenient to say Branson was “going into space”, 53 miles is technically the limit of space. He didn’t plan to stay there for many days or hours. The spaceship would be able to float on the edge, then gravity would slowly pull it back down.
I was wrong to imagine that the astronauts’ journey to the spaceship would go in the Armageddon-esque slow motion. The astronauts were transported by car to the point at which they took off, but it was difficult to see from our vantage points. On the huge outdoor screen, the live stream started. Stephen Colbert, the host, made jokes about Branson’s hair. People spot tarantulas close to their homes and it causes a lot of noise. They are everywhere in the desert.
Mothership Eve took approximately 45 minutes to reach altitude. The spaceship then pierced through atmosphere leaving behind a trail of white smoke, almost like a new pope. The crowd cheered and cried. All else, including the tarantulas and heat, as well as the bizarre bicycle, was gone. It is a stunning sight to see a spaceship’s trajectory. You feel a shock in your core. Every time I fly on a plane to take-off, I feel a thrill. It’s difficult to imagine how I would feel in a spaceship.
A press conference was held after the crew returned safely to Earth. The crew is asked about any mementos that they have brought with them to space. Branson was one of the few who brought photos of their family. Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut, had an alternative answer. “I took as many roses in my pocket as I could. She said, “For my loved ones and to symbolize life.”
Astronauts frequently talk about the feeling of transcendence that they experience when traveling beyond Earth. It’s a sudden awareness of life and a deeper connection with humanity. This phenomenon is known as the “Overview Effect”. Moses explained to me that spaceflight is very spiritual. It is transformative. She said, “It sticks in my soul.”
She spoke about space from her second flight. You can see about a thousand miles from our point. Last time I flew, I could see half the U.S., half the way down into Mexico and around the edge to the Pacific Ocean. It is just this vast expanse below you,” she stated. “And then, today, I could see more a mosaic of greens & browns as well as lava flows & mountains. The White Sands were bright and beautiful.”
Moses stated, “I believe this has an innocent humanity that brings out the very best in everyone.”
Sirisha Bandla, an aerospace engineer, is the VP of research operations at Virgin Galactic. Unity 22 was her first space flight. She described how it felt to look out at the 17 windows on the spaceship. “What I saw and how I felt – it was amazing. She said, “I don’t know how long it took.” “I looked at the time and thought, “Oh, my God, science is what I should be doing.”
She explained that her main goal was to demonstrate the possibility for researchers to interact while in space with their payload. She conducted an experiment at the University of Florida to observe changes in gene expressions of plants during spaceflight. This was part of her efforts to test these capabilities and improve upon them for future missions. This research could be used to learn more about the effects of space travel on living organisms and humans.
Bandla and Moses radiate passion and enthusiasm that is evidently genuine. When you look up at the sky, or down at it, it’s difficult to be cynical. The flight was the only reason I felt cynical. The cynicism was more about being wary of all the ways that something so beautiful could be sullied. It might seem like spaceflight is a wonderful thing, but even being a witness to it felt transcendent. There were times throughout the day when I felt like I was being thrown back to Earth. After the flight, I heard the announcement that Branson was driving to the launch site in a Land Rover. This Land Rover was the exclusive automotive sponsor for the flight. Land Rover has released an “Astronaut Edition” car in 2019, which only those who have been to space with Virgin Galactic are able to purchase. Under Armour also made the fancy flight suits that astronauts wore. Khalid performed his new single that day in front of a VIP audience. The crew first heard it on the spaceship. I imagined Khalid as an intergalactic pop superstar one day, similar to Proto Zoa from Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. Space travel doesn’t only give you a different view of Earth, but also opens up a world of marketing possibilities. We were constantly reminded throughout the day that history is being made right now. But who is it for? Who?
Bandla and Moses played important roles in the flight. They were crucial in ensuring that everything ran smoothly. They were busy for the 90 minutes they flew. They’re not space tourists. Moses is very committed to her mission and her job. She also ponders the possibility of one day being a passenger. She said, “I would love not to have a single thing but to go and enjoy it and sit back in my chair.” “One day, I might buy a ticket if I win the lottery and just have the pure joy of it.”
It is not yet clear when the average person will be able afford to travel to space. In five years? Ten? One-hundred? Virgin Galactic wants space to be accessible to all. This was the refrain from launch day. The company stated that it expected the price of tickets to go up beyond $250k when ticket sales resume.
Virgin Galactic believes this launch will break the “commercial spaceflight barriers.” The company is optimistic that the cost of commercial spaceflight will fall as it becomes more established. This is similar to how getting on an airplane now feels almost routine, despite being a luxury that was unattainable for most Americans for most 20th-century.
Commercial airplanes were still able to fly people and goods around the globe long before prices dropped. There were business to be done, and loved ones to see. Announcement of commercial spaceflight is like saying the horse has won. Where would space travelers go to? We are not yet close to solving the problems of sustaining life beyond Earth. We would be fighting every environment that could kill us.
During worldwide COVID lockdowns, airlines began “flights into nowhere” in the last year. They burned jet fuel for hours to transport passengers on long journeys that end where they started. The public’s reaction was not positive. These flights were not only viewed as absurd, but also as an example of gross excess. It’s a common cliche to say that we should be focusing on the journey and not the destination. But there is no precedent for not having any destination.
The claims of commercial spaceflight are a big deal, not just for the investors and founders of these companies. Spaceport America was built by the state of New Mexico for Virgin Galactic and cost $220 million. Spaceport is in Truth or Consequences. The community has been waiting for the economic benefits of this investment for a while. What happens if this industry fails to take off?
Space billionaires are proud to have achieved what would have taken the power and willful actions of entire nations centuries ago, despite this uncertainty. There is no big government involved. It’s just free market innovation at its best. Depending on whom you ask, a few private citizens possessing the power of nations can be either cause for celebration or alarm.
After the launch event, the outdoor stages began to fall, revealing more desert. It was both stunning and strange. It was still hot and I believed that the sun would never set. Branson’s space venture was not the only headline on July 11. California wildfires were also a major topic. The Death Valley temperature reached 130 degrees on that day.
The view from space is truly life-altering and moving. It’s one thing for me to feel the Overview Effect while on a mission that tests the limits of the traversable universe. It’s quite another to feel the Overview Effect when you are part of a mission that tests the limits of the traversable universe. This is a mission that sells tickets for spiritual enlightenment and entices rich people to spend a lot of money to have an experience that will drive home the gravity on Earth. The climate crisis is serious, wars are bad, and other people matter. This is all real and not a simulation.