Nothing about the sentence "71-year-old billionaire Richard Branson is being launched into space from a New Mexico desert just nine days before billionaire Jeff Bezos is going to space with his brother" makes sense at first. It's a Mad Lib, a bot-sent email that goes straight to the spam folder.
It’s also reality. On July 11, Branson went into space, and today, Bezos did the same. It’s tempting to frame these rich men in space as a sudden microtrend among the elite — like, they came out of quarantine and decided to escape the stratosphere for a moment, just like you thought returning to a real movie theatre would be a fun thing to do this summer. But, these billionaire-founded spaceflight companies — Branson's Virgin Galactic, Bezos' Blue Origin, and Elon Musk's SpaceX — have been heading toward this moment since the early 2000s. And now, it’s arrived: The age of commercial flights to space is here, right now. And it’s not just for them, but for all of us. At least, that’s what the billionaires say.
All three men want to send more humans to space, but diverge in priorities and focus. Branson is mostly promoting space tourism as a must-see, life-changing experience rather than suggesting people live on Mars permanently. Bezos' vision for space involves moving large parts of manufacturing off Earth. Musk, on the other hand, believes that humanity needs to establish space settlements ASAP, including a permanent moon base, because we need a back-up in case something goes irrevocably wrong on Earth. He has claimed that SpaceX could take humans to Mars by 2026.
But before any of that can happen — and it’s still probably a long way off from happening — the billionaires need to prove it’s possible; so they’re trying to impress the world. Not simply by sending manned flights to space — we've seen that before — but by showing that a private venture can put people in space; that a wealthy man can leave Earth if he wants to, and so can you. Who doesn't want to see the view from beyond Earth, after all? As children, didn’t we all have the same two passions and two passions only? Dinosaurs and space. Of the two, only space is attainable — although don’t be surprised if billionaires are also quietly working to launch their own versions of Jurassic Park within the next decade.
In the here and now, and with the success of its test flight last week, Virgin Galactic is aiming to take the first paying customers into space by 2022. There's only one problem with everyone getting to fulfill this childhood dream: Tickets will cost somewhere between $200,000 to $250,000 USD, possibly more.
Personally, this means that going to space is out of my budget right now. I am going to have to wait a bit to report back on what it’s like. But in terms of what it's like to watch a very rich person go to space? That I can tell you all about, in extreme and bizarre detail.
No matter how bizarre it is to read the sentence "Richard Branson is being launched into space," witnessing it unfold was far more surreal. Part of that was just due to the landscape of the New Mexico desert where Spaceport America, which calls itself the "first purpose-built commercial spaceport" in the nation, appears like a spectre in the middle of an arid basin called Jornada del Muerto. From certain angles it looks like a flying saucer that crashed into the dirt. When driving down the desolate road to Spaceport during the day, pools of water keep appearing in the distance, each one failing to materialize once you actually approach them.
But when we first made our way to Spaceport in the early hours of July 11, there was no sun or shimmering mirages yet. It was the dead of night when the press bus left from Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico, about an hour away from the launch site.
The thing about this part of the U.S. is that you're constantly running up against borders. If you want to get to space from the East Coast, for example, you'll have to fly into El Paso, Texas, on the southwestern edge of the state. New Mexico lies to the west and Mexico to the south. Driving from the airport to El Paso, a giant red X floats above a series of low-rise buildings; it’s a sculpture that resides in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, perfectly summing up the fact that you have arrived at a crossroads.
Spaceport is trying to be the next kind of frontier in this land, a new vertical border. On the way to the facility, we crossed another modern border: the U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint. Two border agents stepped on the bus with little flashlights in hand; it was still the dead of night. Everyone was asked if they're a U.S. citizen. One agent checked the bus bathroom for stowaways.
Arriving at Spaceport's parking lot, there was a small Virgin Galactic plane at the entrance, announcing the presence of the port's star tenant right away. Two large tents were set up, one for the press and another for the VIPs. Besides traditional news broadcasters, there were also TikTokers who've been invited to document the historic event today. Many of the people milling about in the VIP tent have already bought their own Virgin Galactic tickets. They're not referred to as VIPs or ticket holders, though. They're called "Future Astronauts." Over the speakers, the DJ periodically encouraged guests to post on social media using the hashtag #Unity22.
Throughout the day, promo videos played on loop on the site's many TV screens. One introduced the six astronauts, including the two pilots, and their roles during the flight. Branson is Astronaut 001, and he's in charge of testing the "customer experience." We were also shown a clip of Branson arriving to Spaceport on a bike, hugging his fellow crew mates and being told to go put on his flight suit. The live stream of the launch claims that this video was from "earlier today," and people on the ground were talking offhandedly about how he biked here this morning, but then Reuters later debunked it — the bike footage had been recorded on July 5. The back and forth around this trivial detail is both funny and baffling, and representative of the thread of absurdity that runs through the whole event. Why did the bike matter so much? Was it an environmental message? Was it just more picturesque?
People also whispered that Elon Musk was at Spaceport too, which bolsters the argument that there isn't in fact some cutthroat competition between the spacefaring billionaires, despite what some headlines have claimed. Instead, they support each other, cheer each other on. In a press conference later that day, Branson confirmed that Musk had visited him around 3 a.m. "I'd already been to bed, and he still hadn't gone to bed," Branson said.
Unity 22 wasn't just a space launch. It's a spectacle, it's pageantry, it's a vibe. A random selection of upbeat pop music played on the speakers so far, including BTS' Dynamite, but at one point Hotel California started blaring and I wondered for a second if this was the onset of heat stroke.
The sun climbed up over the mountains and the murmuring grew louder as the launch inched closer, everyone wondering in which direction they should be looking. I had to forget what I've typically seen on TV. The Unity 22 launch wouldn't begin from a launchpad, with the shuttle rocketing up from the ground, gradually shedding its first rockets as it burned up fuel. One of the goals of commercial spaceflight is to not rely on such single-use rockets, which are costly to build and simply become debris after one launch.
Instead, Virgin Galactic used an air launch method. A carrier plane called Mothership Eve would be taking off on the runway and reaching an altitude of 50,000 feet — then the spaceship, VSS Unity, would detach from Eve, its rocket motor would turn on, and it would blast up about 53 miles above Earth.
That's the other thing about this launch. While it was — and is — convenient to say that Branson was "going to space," technically 53 miles is right around the threshold where space just begins. And he wasn’t planning on staying there for days, or even hours. The spaceship would float for just a few minutes on the edge of space, and then slowly be pulled back down by gravity.
The astronauts' walk to the spaceship didn't happen in the way I imagined it would either, in Armageddon-esque slo-mo. They were conveyed via car to the point of takeoff, and from our vantage point it was pretty hard to see anyone. The live stream began on the giant outdoor screen, and we heard Stephen Colbert, who's hosting the stream, make jokes about Branson's hair. There's a commotion as people spotted tarantulas crawling close by. The desert is full of them.
It took about 45 minutes for Mothership Eve to reach altitude, and then the spaceship pierced through the atmosphere, leaving a trail of white vapour behind it, like a new pope has been chosen. There were cheers and tears in the crowd. Everything else — the tarantulas, the heat, the bizarre bike — dropped away. The trajectory of a spaceship is stunning to behold, a shock you feel in your core. I still feel a little thrill every time I'm on a plane for take-off; it's hard to imagine what I would feel on a spaceship.
After the crew was safely back on Earth again, there was a press conference. They're asked about any mementos they brought to space. Most of them, including Branson, brought photos of family with them. But Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut, had a different answer. "I took as many flowers in my inner pocket as I could. For my loved ones, and to represent life," she said.
Astronauts often talk about a sense of transcendence when they journey beyond Earth — of suddenly seeing life from a new perspective, of feeling a connection to humanity that's bigger than themselves. It's a phenomenon called the "Overview Effect." Moses told me that the experience of spaceflight feels very spiritual. "It is absolutely transformational. It sticks in my soul," she said.
This flight marked her second time in space, and she spoke vividly about what can be seen from up there. "From our point, you can see a thousand miles or so. The last time I flew, I could see halfway up the U.S., halfway down into Mexico, around the edge of the Pacific Ocean. And it just is this broad expanse below you," she said. "And then today, I could see more of a mosaic of greens and browns and lava flows and mountains. The White Sands was super bright and beautiful."
"I think this has an innocent humanity to it that brings out the best in everyone," Moses said.
Sirisha Bandla is an aerospace engineer serving as the VP of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic. Unity 22 was her first time in space. She told me how she felt looking out at one of the spaceship's 17 windows. "What I saw, and what I was feeling — I was just so taken aback. I don't know how much time passed," she said. "I looked at my watch and was like, 'Oh shoot, I should do science.'"
"My main goal was to test the ability for researchers to interact with their payload while in space," she explained. As part of testing these capabilities, and improving upon them for future missions, she took up an experiment for the University of Florida that observed changes in plants' gene expressions during spaceflight. Such research could help us learn more about what exactly happens to living organisms, including humans, during space travel.
The enthusiasm and passion that Moses and Bandla radiate is obviously genuine. It's hard to be cynical when you're looking up at the sky — or down from it. But the cynicism I felt wasn't about the flight itself. It wasn’t even really cynicism, actually, but wariness over all the ways something so beautiful can be sullied. Spaceflight itself might be sublime, and even just being witness to it felt transcendent. But there were moments throughout the day that plummeted me back to Earth. At some point after the flight, I heard over the speakers that Branson had been driven to the launch area in a Land Rover, the exclusive automotive sponsor of the flight. In 2019, Land Rover released a special "Astronaut Edition" car that only people who've been to space with Virgin Galactic can buy. We were also informed that the snazzy flight suits the astronauts wore were made by Under Armour. Khalid performed his new single for the first time that day, in front of the VIP audience, while the crew heard it first on the spaceship. I imagined him being an intergalactic pop star one day, like Proto Zoa in Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. Going to space doesn't just give you an altered view of Earth — it also comes with a lot of marketing opportunities on the planet. Throughout the day, we were reminded that history was being created right now. But for who? And by who?
Moses and Bandla had important roles during the flight, crucial to ensuring everything went smoothly. It kept them busy during the roughly 90 minutes they were flying; they're not space tourists. So as much as Moses is committed to her job and to the mission, she mused that it would be nice to one day take a ride as a passenger. "I would love to not have a single thing to do except go and enjoy it and kick back in my seat," she said. "One day I might buy myself a ticket — if I ever win the lottery — and just go for the pure fun of it."
It's not clear when ordinary people will be able to afford a trip to space. Five years from now? Ten? One-hundred? The refrain during launch day was that Virgin Galactic wants to democratize space. Yet the company has said before that, when ticket sales resume, it expects the price to rise even beyond $250k.
Virgin Galactic believes that this launch represents the breaking of the "commercial spaceflight barrier." They're optimistic that the price will naturally come down as the commercial spaceflight industry takes firmer hold, in the way that getting on an airplane feels practically mundane now, despite having been an unattainable luxury to the majority of Americans for most of the 20th century.
But in the case of commercial airplanes, there were reasons to fly people and things around the world even before the prices dropped. There was business to conduct, loved ones to see. Announcing the arrival of commercial spaceflight feels like putting the cart before the horse. Where would space travellers go? We're not close to solving the obstacles to sustaining life beyond Earth — pesky little problems like having a source of water and oxygen, or finding a climate even remotely habitable for our bodies. At every turn we'd be fighting against environments perfect for killing us.
In the past year, amid worldwide COVID lockdowns, some airlines started conducting "flights to nowhere," burning jet fuel for hours to take passengers on journeys that ended up where they'd began. The public reaction wasn't pretty. These flights weren't only seen as pointless, but as examples of gross excess. There’s an often-used cliche that suggests we should focus on the journey, not the destination — but there’s no precedent for not having a destination at all.
There's a lot at stake on the claims that commercial spaceflight is here, and not only for the founders and investors of these companies. The state of New Mexico spent $220 million USD building Spaceport America so that companies like Virgin Galactic would have a launch site. Spaceport is located in the town of Truth or Consequences, and the community there has already been waiting a long time for the economic payoff to this investment. What happens if the industry doesn't take off?
Despite this uncertainty, space billionaires seem proud that they've ostensibly managed to accomplish what took the power and will of entire nations in the past. No big government involved, just free market innovation at work. Depending on who you ask, I guess, a handful of private citizens having the power of nations is either a reason for celebration or alarm.
When the launch event was over, the outdoor stages started coming down, revealing more of the desert. It looked both beautiful and alien. It was still scorching hot, and I was partly convinced that the sun would never set. Beside Branson's space adventure, one of the major headlines on July 11 concerned wildfires in California; the temperature in Death Valley reached 130 degrees that day.
I totally believe that the view from space is moving and life-altering. But it's one thing to feel the Overview Effect as part of a mission testing the limits of the traversable universe. It's another to feel it when participating in a different kind of mission, one that essentially sells tickets to spiritual enlightenment, enticing rich people to pay a fortune for an experience that promises to drive home the gravity of life on Earth — the climate crisis is serious, war is bad, other people matter. All of this is real, and not a simulation.