England lost the European Championship to Italy on Sunday afternoon, 11 July. But on the morning of the same day, from the commercial spaceport America in the US state of New Mexico, wealthy and eccentric British entrepreneur Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin group of companies, realised his long-cherished dream.
At almost 71 years of age, the Londoner has won the race to be the first to be the star of a flight that, if successful, should lead to commercial suborbital flights in 2022 for a price of around 250,000 euros. Branson has achieved this after creating the company Virgin Galactic and with a plane specifically designed to fly to the vicinity of the frontier of space.
The historic maiden flight of Richard Branson and his three companions began when the SpaceShipTwo suborbital aircraft, christened VSS Unity, took off at 16:40 local time on Sunday 11 July, fixed under the belly of the WhiteKnightTwo mother plane.
When WhiteKnightTwo had reached an altitude of 14 kilometres, the VSS Unity detached from its carrier aircraft and fell a few dozen metres. Soon after, its two veteran pilots ignited the unique aircraft's single hybrid rocket engine, which began a near-vertical ascent to a speed approaching Mach 3, three times the speed of sound.
Once the fuel had been consumed and the rocket engine shut down, the unique aircraft continued its ascent to 86.1 kilometres, turned back on itself and described a parabolic trajectory. It was then that the privileged travellers were able to unfasten their seat belts, float in microgravity conditions and feel the sensation of weightlessness in their bodies for about three minutes. At the same time, they were able to admire the curvature of the Earth from the 12 circular windows of the passenger cabin.
The spacecraft began the return flight without propulsion, thanks to the control system that regulates wing configuration and the expertise of its two veteran pilots, Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci. They tilted the aircraft's peculiar moving surfaces by 60 degrees to stabilise the aircraft in the upper layers of the atmosphere and achieve the necessary tilt during the critical stages of the ascent and return flight to Earth.
Less than 20 kilometres from the runway, the pilots repositioned the wings to their initial configuration to begin the approach and land on the long runway of Spaceport America. With his feet on the ground, Branson has reconfirmed that he wants to take "anyone" to the ends of the Earth.
His intention is that all human beings should have an equal chance of accessing outer space. His company Virgin Galactic wants to "turn dreamers into the astronauts of today and tomorrow, regardless of age, background, gender or ethnicity," he said. But each ticket costs around 250,000 euros.
Richard Branson has given the go-ahead to travel to the heights of the planet, from where it is possible to contemplate the spherical shape of the Earth and feel weightlessness for a few minutes. The Briton is just 9 days ahead of Jeff Bezos, with whom he is competing to lead a new travel segment that is opening up to tourists from all over the world. But his personal triumph and that of his company Virgin Galactic is limited.
The American tycoon will take part in the next chapter of the competition on 20 July, when he will take off with three other passengers aboard a launcher, on top of which sits the New Shepard capsule, which is prepared to travel more than a hundred kilometres in altitude.
Jeff Bezos is consoled by the fact that Richard Branson has only reached an altitude of 86.1 kilometres, almost the maximum power that the engine of his suborbital aircraft can deliver. This means that, for the vast majority of aeronautical and space institutions around the world, he has not crossed the boundary between the atmosphere and outer space, which is delimited by the so-called Karman line, a theoretical barrier located at 100 kilometres above the Earth's surface.
Failure to cross this boundary means that Branson and his companions are not true astronauts, for example, in the eyes of the International Astronautical Federation, the world's leading astronautical organisation. However, in the United States, the Air Force, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) do recognise those who reach 80 kilometres as astronauts.
The reason is none other than that this is the distance above the Earth to which Alan Shepard managed to fly on 5 May 1961 aboard the Freedom 7 capsule, as a replica of the success of the Soviet Yuri Gagarin, who 12 weeks earlier had become the first cosmonaut to make an orbit around the Earth. Alan Shepard's was a suborbital flight of just 15 minutes, i.e. up and down, with the Americans satisfied that they had matched the Soviet Union, which was not true.