By Ramin Skibba
In the early years of this century, executives at Virgin Galactic, founded by the irreverent Richard Branson, predicted that commercial flights to space for paying passengers were only a couple of years away. That turned out to be far too ambitious. Disaster struck the company twice in the next decade: In 2007 an explosion during pre-launch tests of SpaceShipTwo’s rocket systems killed three people. Then in 2014, a pilot was killed during a test flight when the space plane crashed in the Mojave desert.
Now, in 2021, everything looks different. On July 11, Branson and three crew members traveled to Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic’s human spaceflight headquarters in southern New Mexico, and clambered aboard VSS Unity, a much upgraded version of SpaceShipTwo. They blasted toward the edge of space, at an altitude of 54 miles above the Earth, allowing the passengers a panoramic view of the world as they excitedly floated in zero gravity for about four minutes of their hour-long journey.