A jubilant Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson celebrated the “experience of a lifetime” as one of six people aboard what was officially the first passenger flight to the edge of space Sunday morning. All the other people on the Unity 22 spacecraft were Virgin employees but it was the first flight after the FAA granted approval for commercial service to the lower edge of space. “Space is Virgin territory” said one of several commentators on the live video feed as the spacecraft reached about 85 kilometers in altitude and performed its “feather” maneuver, rolling inverted to maximize the view of the earth below for the occupants. After about 3.5 minutes of weightlessness, in which Branson and his fellow passengers unstrapped to float freely in the spacious cabin, the spacecraft headed home.
The space plane descended through the atmosphere before gliding to a centerline landing on Runway 34 at Virgin’s New Mexico spaceport. A recovery crew met the vehicle on the runway and opened a small hatch near the front of Unity 22. Duration of the flight from release from the Mothership Eve carrier aircraft was a little more than 15 minutes.
There will undoubtedly be some debate over whether Branson actually reached space. The spacecraft reached an apogee of 53.7 miles, technically more than eight miles short of the so-called Karman Line of 62 miles that is the internationally recognized point where space begins. However, the U.S. defines the edge of space as 50 miles or 262,000 feet.