SPACEPORT AMERICA, N.M. — Virgin Galactic's newly minted astronauts are beyond thrilled following their journey to space on the company's first fully crewed spaceflight.
Sunday (July 11), Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson joined crewmates Sirisha Bandla and Colin Bennett in earning their astronaut wings following the successful launch and landing of the company's Unity 22 suborbital mission. Beth Moses, who also flew aboard the craft, had already achieved astronaut status on a previous flight. The whole crew shared their excitement after returning to Earth, popping Champagne bottles, with Branson even lifting Bandla up onto his shoulders.
"It was just magical," Branson said during the ceremony following the flight, which was Virgin Galactic's fourth rocket-powered spaceflight. "I feel I'm still in space," he added later during a post-launch news conference.
"Welcome to the dawn of a new space age," he added.
"We've been to space, everybody! " Branson cheered during a post-flight press conference. "So thrilling when a lifetime's dream comes true."
"I think like most kids, I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid and honestly, nothing could prepare you for the view of Earth from space ... We have this incredible Earth," Branson said of his flight. "I'm just taking it all in. It's just unreal."
"I was once a kid with a dream looking up to the stars, and now I"m an adult in a spaceship looking back to our beautiful Earth," Branson said during the news conference. "If we can do this, just imagine what you can do," he added in a comment directed to a group of children at the event.
Branson tweeted out an image of himself taken during the mission with this sentiment later on in the day.
I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I'm an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do https://t.co/Wyzj0nOBgX #Unity22 @virgingalactic pic.twitter.com/03EJmKiH8VJuly 11, 2021
His crewmates were equally overjoyed with their experience. "I couldn't be happier," Bandla said during the news conference. She also shared how happy her parents were for her to accomplish this goal.
"They've heard me say I want to go to space since I was little," Bandla said. "My dad hugged me so hard when I got here my sunglasses shattered ... I couldn't thank them more for their support."
In addition to being exciting for the crew, the mission also went extremely well technically, according to Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic's president of space missions and safety.
"Everything looked perfect in real time. We've looked at the data; we’ve done our quick engineering walkaround," Moses said during the news conference. "Normally, we take it in the hangar to do that. But the quick walkaround on the ramp [was] perfect. The ship looks pristine — no issues whatsoever."
As part of this test flight, the crew was tasked with evaluating multiple facets of the mission experience, including comfort, research, customer service and more.
"I was so honored to test the customer experience," Branson said. "Initially, I thought testing the customer experience was a little bit of an excuse to get me on [the mission]," he said, but he added that he came to see how important it actually was. "It's the little details that matter."
Virgin Galactic's flight came less than two weeks before Blue Origin's New Shepard vehicle is set to make a crewed suborbital test flight with its founder, Jeff Bezos, on board. This has sparked questions of a "race" between the two billionaire founders to get to space before the other. However, Branson previously dispelled those rumors and continued to do so after this flight.
"It really wasn't a race," he said. "We're just delighted that everything went fantastically well. We wish Jeff the absolute best, and the people going up with him during his flight."
In the spirit of support among commercial spaceflight companies, Branson added that SpaceX founder Elon Musk showed up to show his support.
"It was great this morning to find Elon in my kitchen at 3 o'clock to come to wish us the best. I'd already been to bed and he still hadn't gone to bed," he said. "So nice of him to come all this way to wish us well." Branson added that Bezos also sent a "goodwill message."
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