A Full Recap of Virgin Galactic's Fourth Spaceflight Test, Carrying Founder Richard Branson

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

Virgin Galactic launched founder Richard Branson along with three other crew members on the company's fourth spaceflight test to date.

Branson calls spaceflight 'complete experience of a lifetime'

Branson, in remarks from his Virgin Galactic flight on Sunday, said the spaceflight was the "complete experience of a lifetime" shortly after the spacecraft successfully took off over New Mexico.

"Now I'm looking down at a beautiful spaceport," said Branson, who is flying along with two pilots and three Virgin Galactic employees. "Congratulations to everyone for creating such a beautiful, beautiful place."

Congratulations from astronauts and more

Congratulatory posts to Virgin Galactic came in across social media after the flight landed, from NASA officials to astronauts.

VSS Unity lands on the Spaceport America runway in New Mexico

The spacecraft returned in a glide to land on the runway in New Mexico, completing the company's fourth spaceflight to date.

Branson and crew reach space

VSS Unity reached space, above 80 kilometers, achieving a decades-long dream of billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson.

Virgin Galactic

Release and launch

Release! VSS Unity separates from the carrier aircraft and then ignites its engine, firing the spacecraft into a climb. The spacecraft will need to reach more than three times the speed of sound to make it to space.

Virgin Galactic

10 minutes to release

CNBC's Morgan Brennan on the ground at Spaceport America in New Mexico posts that there are now less than 10 minutes to go until launch.

Less than 15 minutes to launch

Virgin Galactic

Successful spaceflight would see most humans in space simultaneously

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, shared a fact about the number of people in space if the Unity22 mission is successful. There are 10 people in space before Virgin Galactic launches, on board the International Space Station and the Chinese space station.

Aircraft and spacecraft above 40,000 feet altitude

Virgin Galactic

VMS Eve and VSS Unity are now abvove 40,000 feet altitude, with release expected near 45,000 feet.

Unity22 goals

In addition to flying Branson, today's spaceflight featured other goals, as Virgin Galactic is still testing its spacecraft system, aiming to begin commercial service in early 2022. The four crew members are testing the spacecraft's cabin and the training program Virgin Galactic has developed, and Bandla will be performing a plant-based experiment for the University of Florida.

Billionaires argue over what is actual outer space

Branson and Jeff Bezos are launching themselves into space only weeks apart. But their space planes are traveling different distances, which has triggered an argument over what is actual outer space.

Branson's Virgin Galactic flies above 80 kilometers, roughly 262,000 feet, which is the height that the U.S. sees as the boundary of space. Bezos' Blue Origin flies above 100 kilometers, roughly 328,000 feet, an altitude know as the Kármán Line.

"There's no sort of real international agreement" on the boundary of space, according to astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell. But McDowell has argued that 80 kilometers is the clearest boundary of space.

Mission Unity22 takes off, with launch expected in under an hour

Aircraft VMS Eve has taken off from the Spaceport America runway, carrying spacecraft VSS Unity underneath. The carrier aircraft will bring Unity up to more than 40,000 feet altitude, where it will release and then fire its engine. 

Virgin Galactic

The stakes

Virgin Galactic leaders in front of the New York Stock Exchange, from left: CEO George Whitesides, founder Richard Branson and Chairman Chamath Palihapitiya.
Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic leaders in front of the New York Stock Exchange, from left: CEO George Whitesides, founder Richard Branson and Chairman Chamath Palihapitiya.

There are multiple things at stake for Sunday's spaceflight.

First and foremost is the safety of the crew, as Virgin Galactic's spacecraft will be traveling at more than three times the speed of sound to reach the edge of space. It is manually guided by two Virgin Galactic pilots, rather than autonomously controlled like other spacecraft.

Virgin Galactic is a publicly-traded company, so the stock often swings significantly before and after events such as a spaceflight. Shares move in a speculative manner as Virgin Galactic has yet to begin generating significant revenue.

Bezos wishes Branson well

Jeff Bezos posted on Instagram before the flight, saying he is wishing Richard Branson "and the whole team a successful and safe flight tomorrow. Best of luck!"

Boarding and preparing for takeoff

The Virgin Galactic crew rode in a set of Land Rovers and drove out the spacecraft VSS Unity and carrier aircraft VMS Eve on the runway before boarding and preparing to takeoff from the runway of Spaceport America. The carrier aircraft will fly the spacecraft steadily up to its release altitude, expected about 50 minutes after takeoff.

Inside Spaceport America

A view of the Virgin Galactic crew walking out, from board member Adam Bain:

Crew walk out

The Virgin Galactic crew walked out of Spaceport America to board spacecraft VSS Unity. The crew for Sunday's flight is pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci and passengers Sir Richard Branson, chief astronaut trainer Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett, and VP of government affairs Sirisha Bandla.

Elon Musk sees Branson off

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