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Virgin Galactic finally flies Richard Branson on its reusable suborbital Unity spacecraft

Capitalism in space: After almost two decades of development and almost as many false promises by Richard Branson, Branson today finally flew on his SpaceShipTwo ship dubbed VSS Unity.

Unity was taken to about 45,000 feet by the carrier airplane WhiteKnightTwo, where it was released and its engines fired.

Once VSS Unity’s rocket engine cut off, the spacecraft’s momentum took it to an altitude of around 90 kilometers. This is above the minimum altitude of 80 kilometers required by the US Air Force, NASA, and the FAA to grant astronaut wings, and is above the discernible atmosphere. This apogee, or maximum altitude, is below the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) recognized boundary of space at 100 kilometers, which SpaceShipOne crossed twice to claim the X-Prize in 2004.

The craft spent around five minutes in weightlessness, with the crew evaluating the experience and looking at Earth and space from 17 windows on the craft, before they strapped back into their seats for reentry.

I have embedded below the fold the live feed, cued to just before Unity was dropped from WhiteKnightTwo. The commentary is far less offensive than the blather on the official live feed, but they end up losing the view from their live feed and switched to the Virgin Galactic live feed, rewinding it to pick it up just before the drop. You then see that feed, with good images and with all the blather, but no interior video during the weightless period. I suspect they want to edit that footage before releasing it, just in case anyone had vomited or Branson looked uncomfortable in any way.

Overall, Virgin Galactic deserves congratulations for finally accomplishing this flight. That it took so long and occurred just before the start of commercial manned orbital flights unfortunately pops the balloon on this achievement. The flight was so short that it now seems somewhat disappointing compared to the upcoming orbital tourist flights.

The next suborbital flight by Blue Origin on July 20th, and unlike today’s Virgin Galactic flight, will carry the first paying passenger, making it the first wholly financed and built private commercial space flight.

Conscious Choice cover

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Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.


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  • Klystron

    The “official” live stream was hosted by Stephen Colbert. Only Richard Branson would choose the obnoxious liberal comedian to host this circus act.

    The NASA Spaceflight stream was muuuuuch better. Congrats to them on their coverage.

  • Questioner

    We should celebrate the beautiful flight that took place as originally planned more than a decade later. The main reason for the delay were massive problems in the development of the hybrid rocket engine, which were underestimated from the start. A really operational hybrid rocket engine in this thrust class had not yet been developed. We particularly remember the four people (three during a ground test with the nitrous oxide oxidizer and one pilot) who died for the project.

  • mkent

    The flight was so short that it now seems somewhat disappointing compared to the upcoming orbital tourist flights.

    An orbital flight on a Dragon costs $55 million per seat. A suborbital flight on SpaceShipTwo costs $250,000 per seat. They’re not even in the same market. It’s like complaining that people finally being able to buy their own bass boat are going to be disappointed because it’s not a luxury super-yacht.

  • JhonB

    Great live audio and video. (Not) Even the pre show had streaming issues.

  • Edward_2

    It’s worth noting that July 20th launch date is also the 52nd anniversary of the historic 1969 first manned landing and walk on the Moon by the USA.

  • Chris Lopes

    The official commentary was strictly amateur hour. The flight itself was about a decade or so late, but still pretty cool. Now that Branson has had his thrill ride, I expect him to bail as soon as possible.

  • The official commentary was strictly amateur hour.

    Muzak meets Ruby Rhod, is what came into my mind.

    Walter Cronkite and Jules Bergman may be spinning in their graves like they were made by Pratt & Whitney.

  • John

    The second after I tuned in, I saw that late night idiot and assumed it would turn political. Sorry, had to leave. It’s not me, it’s you.

  • Jeff Wright

    Colbert is a space fan to his credit.

  • Mitch S.

    “The commentary is far less offensive than the blather on the official live feed”
    I can’t imagine anything worse than the blather on this feed. Sounded like Beevis and Butthead after using a copious amount of cannabis.

    I checked out the official feed and have to say it was much more tolerable. Even Colbert seemed to keep it under control (though I didn’t watch the entire video). At the beginning of the program he even reminded viewers that in the past he was capable of humor (Of course this was when he was spoofing Republican blow-hards).
    The intro with the vehicle/flight description was good. Have to keep in mind that they are promoting a product.
    The failure of the in flight feed was disappointing . Their customers will probably want to send Tweets/Instagrams etc so they should see if that could be done reliably.
    The post landing was odd. No communication from the craft when it was sitting on the ground. What is that period like? It appeared they might have reflective shades over the upper windows to reduce solar heat – does it get hot in there? Any refreshments onboard?
    When all the Range Rovers pulled up I figured they would quickly offload the passengers while on the runway. Maybe that’s the standard plan and Branson changed it in order to have a more dramatic arrival at the terminal – which was hilariously spoiled by the interview with the musical performer!
    Good promo for Land Rover, guessing some sponsorship deal..

  • Mitch S.: Point taken. The real problem today is that too many of the announcers and hosts of these live streams take as their models modern sports broadcasting and its odious announcers (who spend more time repeating cliches than describing details the video does not capture) and color commenters (who really never add any color but simply repeat the same cliches).

    They also take as their model the typical incredibly boring pregame shows and postgame shows, both of which are as addled and empty headed.

    I will admit that I avoided most of today’s blather by looking in afterward and watching only the flight, often at 2x speed or repeatedly hitting the right arrow key to skip ahead ten seconds or so when nothing was really happening. Didn’t miss anything, and got the essence.

  • “At the beginning of the program he even reminded viewers that in the past he was capable of humor. . . ”

    “People used to think I was funny.

    “Did they work for you?”

    Dr. Strange 2016 Marvel Studios

    Congratulations on a successful flight, and as Questioner pointed out, remembrances for those that gave their lives.

  • Alex G

    How fascinating to watch a billionaire spend outrageous sums of money over decades just to try to convince us he actually flew into space.

    It was neither fascinating nor space.

  • Col Beausabre

    Allow me point out that the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, flew to the ISS twenty years ago, and spent eight days there, which is something over 192 times as long in space as this stunt, if you combine the time in weightlessness of the entire manifest

  • Joe

    I get that Branson is late to getting this going but Virgin Galactic did get it going. Better late than never and maybe this will be the turning point (coupled with Blue Origin’s launch) that we need.

    Yes the announcing was bad, the video feed a mess, and the choice of talent a little suspect. They are learning. Blue does a good job but they are about as dry as the desert floor. SpaceX is better but if you go back and watch their first launch videos…oof! VG will get the hang of it and find their voice, just like SpaceX did. It takes more time than people realize. Patience.

    Congrats to Virgin Galactic on the flight today. May cheaper access to space ensue.

  • Mitch S

    BTW I do want to congratulate Branson and the VG crew/staff.
    They made it to goal #1 – get Branson to (near) space.
    Making it to goal #2 – creating a profitable business is still a challenge.
    This (along with New Shepard) isn’t space travel – it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s more a souped up roller coaster ride.
    And that’s fine.
    If Branson/VG can get the business rolling it’ll be interesting to see what paying customers prefer.
    Seems to me VG’s carrier/space plane system has the potential to be less expensive to operate than New Shepard but of course there are “buts”. It does look more elegant than New Shepard which looks… very er, “manly” (I recommend Bezos avoids hiring a comedian for his broadcast).
    VG not getting to 100km may be an issue. Who wants to spend the money to be a “kinda” astronaut.

    Bob, wonderful thing about watching a recording is the ability to fast forward though the painful parts.

    Like the music performance (halftime show?). It was hilarious (to viewers, not VG employees) when Branson and crew exited the plane and nobody was there to greet them – the reporter and camera were focused on the interview of the music performer!

  • pzatchok

    At 500 million in development costs ( just a guess) for VG. how many paying customers and how many flights till he starts making a profit?

    It is nice they all made it back safe.
    VG and crew deserve a day for this. Maybe even a week.

    On a downer note. I bet they ask the US government for permission to move operations outside the US. You know fly to their customers.

  • wayne

    Some excellent & hilarious comments by all.
    My internet has been down all day– I only saw some of the pre-game, and only the middle/end of the flight live, and haven’t reviewed any other video yet.
    –Congratulations are definitely in order, it didn’t blow up and nobody got killed.
    –They should have contracted with the SpaceX folks for live video. I would think drop-outs would be less of problem with an up-n-down trajectory.
    –Just on my brief exposure today– it had a definite infomercial feel to it, (as-if this is going to be an actual ongoing thing) and the overlaid woke-stuff was just, well…. expected from the usual-suspects and all.

  • wayne

    Personally, I highly enjoy John L. Insprucker as SpaceX announcer-guy. He actually knows what he’s talking about.


    “SpaceX Launch with Monster Truck Announcer”

  • wayne

    (my internet is back up….)

    Air Force test pilot Bruce Peterson (The real 6-Million Dollar Man)
    M2F2 lifting body May, 1967.
    (“Flight com, I can’t hold it, she’s breaking up , she’s breaking up!”)

  • Alex G

    It would have been fitting if the crew had been outfitted with some sort of goofy helmets.

  • Mike a

    And in related news, SPCE sold $500M of stock at 9:30a Monday morning causing a huge drop.
    It was halted once cause it was dropping like a rock.
    AND VG announced they’re going to charge a lot more than the price already quoted.

    Branson is such a con man.

  • Alton

    Thanks Muchly Wayne !

    Here is a minute by minute point by point analysis of the M2F2 crash…

  • Col Beausabre

    “And in related news, SPCE sold $500M of stock at 9:30a Monday morning causing a huge drop.
    It was halted once cause it was dropping like a rock.”

    Investors realized that what they had just seen was a BBBIIIIGGGG nothing burger. To slightly misquote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no “there” there”

    And the timing of the stock issue was just fortuitous.

  • Dean Hurt

    “The commentary is far less offensive than the blather on the official live feed”
    Make no mistake, this is a big step! But, from Colbert (WTH?? An unfunny comedian with zero knowledge or experience with this stuff.) to the orgasmic and hyperbolic commentary of the other blather-mouths, it was pure mindless fluff. But, having said that, congratulations to Branson and crew for achieving a milestone. Now, FINALLY, uber-rich nobodies can almost reach the Karman line and do zero-G backflips. The rest of us will still be grounded. When the price comes down to that of an airline ticket from Portland, OR to San Francisco, call me…until than I will continue to root SpaceX on to bigger and better things that actually may potentially improve our lives. Why settle for the upper atmosphere when you can have the planets!!!

  • wayne

    Good stuff!

  • Edward

    This is a banner year for space tourism. With Virgin Galactic entering the market, soon to be followed by Blue Origin and SpaceX (and Axiom and Space Adventures coordinating some space tourism), we are seeing this industry shifting into a higher gear as it becomes commercial rather than government run. Hopefully this industry will help draw more industries into space.

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