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.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. This is a noteworthy private enterprise, aeronautical, aerodynamic, engineering, aviation and PR accomplishment, interesting and entertaining to watch, but a bit of a stretch to consider it a space accomplishment. I expected release to occur higher than 46,000+ a few feet but maybe temperatures aloft were too high for that. Mach .5 at those altitudes surprised me and seemed frighteningly slow to this ignoramus who used to worry about any speed much below Mach. 75. But I know nothing of those vehicles’ aerodynamic properties except that the launch vehicle appears to have a straight wing perhaps accounting for slow speed capability.

    And now for me it’s back to rag wing, VFR nap of the earth, 100 mph, negative RVSM, negative RNP, negative ADS-B flight while I await the next SpaceX event.

    • The mothership is designed to carry a heavy load (Spaceship) to that altitude and drop it. It is not designed for speed, nor would it be helpful to go much faster. It is not a jetliner.

      • I understand that the mothership is not a jetliner and is single purpose built, but I noticed that even the rocket plane was gliding at Mach .5 through the normal jet flight levels on the way down. The slower speeds of the mothership did not surprise me so much as the slow glide speed of the rocket plane.

        • It makes sense to have the rocket generate enough weight to support itself under the belly of the carrier aircraft, to ease the strain on the carrier. So both are designed and configured to glide at about the same speed. If the rocket’s airfoils provided either significantly less or more lift at the carrier’s cruising speed, either condition would put more stress on the carrier’s airframe.

          • I meant “generate its own LIFT”, not weight. Either we need an edit function, or I need to proofread better.

    • Firstly limiting speed is not in Mach but IAS. Any aircraft that relies on aerodynamic lift reaches a point where it can’t go any faster, because of loading concerns and can’t go any slower because it woud stall. It is called coffin corner! Ask any U-2 pilot!

    • You put that well and it made me finally think this through. The wing loadings must be much lower than we’d typically expect. And that would follow, given the missions for both airframes. No long-haul fuel loads on the carrier. A fully expended solid fuel load on the other. And Mr Rutan has made strong but light airframes an artform.

  2. So, this is basically a very expensive ride on a roller coaster for that tiny cohort of folks who have an excess amount of disposable cash and a deficit of thrill opportunities. Doesn’t take much skill to sit in a chair and be taken for a ride.

  3. I had to smile. We old guys are too spoiled by the developments of the 50’s and 60’s which we were privileged to live but tell me what real advancements we have seen since that time period – 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s up until now?

    Mother Nature sets certain obstacles that exist. No number of attorney’s or accounts can change those obstacles. Until mankind meets these aliens who we are told live on the other side of the moon (smile) and mankind discovers a new form of propulsion and new forms of creating a machine to stay together Space Mastery is only for special effects out of Hollywood. Better to return for us old guys to the days of our Pipe Cubs and Tiger Moths. (smile)

    Oh yes, is it true there are no inspection ports under neat a 787 plastic wing?

    Or why didn’t the 737Max get a bigger tail and better computerization system?

    And why can’t Boeing get an honest engineering team to run their organization?

    I have never seen an accountant or attorney who can be a good leader of a large highly technical organization, can you?

    • There have been annual improvements in materials and electronics.

      The spacecraft from the era you’re talking about were handcrafted – we can do better with modern CAD and machining.

      But the reality is there’s nowhere to go that we haven’t already been that’s near enough to us.

      The Space Shuttle was a very, very badly managed project that was supposed to be 1/10 the cost, but ended up costing 10x more. It sponged up a lot of funding and focus for very little benefit. You could say the same for the ISS, whose only claim to fame was funding Russian scientists so they wouldn’t emigrate to N. Korea.

      Several experiments, including the Hubble, were mismanaged, with either technical problems or massive budget overruns. (The Shuttle started losing tiles on the very first flight. Atlantis was nearly lost from that, besides Challenger and Columbia.)These failure modes continue.

      Mgmt. incompetence is tolerated for space and infrastructure projects, and is the root of the problems you mentioned.

    • I think people felt that Nick Chabraja did a pretty decent job with General Dynamics. He is a lawyer.

  4. Please forget my misspelling and grammatical errors, my fat fingers and small size of print handicaps me.

  5. As Russ Niles points out, there will be a bit of a fuss (totally pointless) about the fact that the VSS rockets don’t quite get to the so-called Karman Line.

    The demarcation of the edge of space is pretty arbitrary. The US uses 50 miles altitude, and the rest of the world uses 100 km. Both are just conveniently round numbers with no other significance. At 50 miles, aerodynamic controls are useless, and there’s really nothing to breathe. And at 100 km, a satellite would quickly be brought down by atmospheric drag. So both altitudes are really in a transition zone, depending on your purpose.

    • Good Point:

      “The American Air Force defines an astronaut as an individual who has flown over 50 miles above the mean sea level (between the thermosphere and the mesosphere). NASA used FAI’s figure (62 miles) until 2005 when they changed to 50 miles to get rid of inconsistency between civilians and military personnel flying the same spacecraft. Recent work by Gangale Thomas and Jonathan McDowell advocate for the Karman line to be shifted from 62 miles to 50 miles, citing Theodore Karman’s calculations and notes as evidence. Their findings forced the FAI to propose a meeting with the IAF to explore this issue in 2019.

      Geoffrey Migiro June 6 2020 in Environment”

  6. 282,000 feet is only 86 Kilometers. The Von Karmen line standard is 100,000 Kilometers. Sorry Sir Richard, try again. Also . . . go orbital or don’t go. Elon can explain.

    • Exactly! At the least achieve orbit at some 18,000 mph, then do a true heat blasting re-entry. Otherwise, it is all smoke and mirrors, like this very expensive stunt.

    • I gotta call BS on this line nerdery. The space station is still actually not completely out of the atmosphere. Anything less is just somebody picking a level with a difference and claiming authority. Notice how important the physics must be when they round off the level to the nearest mile or kilometer.

      If we’re going to claim authority, I’ll listen to somebody who paid his own way over 50 miles and then says it didn’t feel like outer space to him. All the professor’s and other wannabe’s can sit on the ground and act as smug as they like. I’ll pay no attention. There’s always another line.

  7. Like a motorcycle jumping a line of 20 cars(without a Datsun or VW in the line) it’s a real accomplishment. Take a bow and today the world goes on as usual.

  8. If I had a spare $250,000 for a ticket, I’d find something else to do with it. Billionaires and their playthings don’t impress me all that much.

  9. Fun to watch, but an awfully expensive way to experience weightlessness. Skydiving may not be quite the same, but it is a whole lot cheaper. Branson is, after all, a showman. A modern PT Barnum.

  10. The only impressive thing about that flight was the piloting. The Captain put that nose skid in the center of that centerline.

  11. Typically rich people don’t become rich by wasting their money so I think the que for this event may be small.

    I have a deep distain for all things Musk but as it stands his space program is superior to Branson’s, literally by miles.

    This was more of a high altitude plane ride. I’d expect a space flight to include at least one orbit and a reentry.

  12. Too many socialists in this bunch. All this whining about money is appalling.

    If Branson can sell his tickets and create jobs for pilots, engineers, repair men, and the like, then good on him and his wealthy passengers.

  13. I applaud the scientific effort but the commercial hype is a bit much. NASA did this 60 years ago, although without any commercial PAX. I wonder how much of the public realize the weightlessness achieved was due to free fall and not being out of earth’s gravity.

    • Technically one is in continuous Free Fall, when orbiting. This causes the weightlessness, not the absence of gravity.

    • Actually, I would say the *commercial* hype is deserved. The *technical* achievements might not be much (humans have known for a while know how to do human-rated suborbital flights), but packaging it in a format that has the OK from the FAA and is reasonably affordable to do multiple times with untrained passengers is an acheivement.

  14. Absolutely correct. Except these guys weren’t in orbit. They just flew an expensive parabola.

  15. Someone please check my math, but at $250K for a 15 minute joy ride, it comes to $17k/minute.
    I find that astounding that someone can create a ride and charge that kind of money and people are lining up. Branson always has been a great businessman. His track record continues…
    Curiously, I have not heard one word of credit going to Dick Rutan and Scaled Composites.

    • I suppose because most people also don’t credit the builder and designer of a fun rollercoaster and talk more about the park that it’s located in. Not that Scaled doesn’t deserve credit or mention, though. It’s just not too surprising that they aren’t mentioned..

  16. Wow. Surprised at all the negative comments here. I am amazed at the simplicity of the design and how they were able to make it work. True, they didn’t reach orbit, but come on. How many of you have flown a rocket plane to 282,000 Ft?