Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group has finally begun his journey to commercialise space travel through Unity, his Virgin Galactic rocket plane after almost 20 years working towards this milestone for the Virgin Group. The flight which took place in June 2023 was the “first purchased mission” rather than another test flight. The first mission for Unity was live streamed worldwide for its 72 minute duration. Unity, the space rocket, is assisted in reaching the required altitude through its carrier plane, which takes it to 44,500ft , the rocket then climbs the rest of the way on its own and at its peak, Unity managed to hit 279,00ft which for those of us who use the metric system, is 85km up. The mission launched from Spaceport America, which is the “world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world.” Spaceport currently plays host to some of the biggest companies in space travel including Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic joins a number of other companies in the commercial space race and is far from the first to offer the highest bidders seats on a space rocket. The first ever space tourist was actually a billionaire by the name of Dennis Tito who made the journey in 2001 for a hefty fee of $20 million. More notably and recently, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin beat Virgin Galactic to it by being one of the first to take paying passengers past the atmosphere. Although their means of launching their space rockets differ, apparently the flight experience is relatively similar. For those who can afford it, space is becoming one of the most sought after ‘tourist’ experiences for the ultra-rich. For some, like Virgin Galactic’ s customers, they have been waiting for some time for their trip to space, with some having bought their tickets over a decade ago.

Now that the first passenger flight has successfully taken place, the idea is to offer one mission a month that will accommodate a small number of passengers, considering that there are over 800 ticket holders for Unity, it will take some time for everyone to get their chance. “This historic flight was our first commercial flight and our first dedicated commercial research mission – ushering in a new era of repeatable and reliable access to space for private passengers and researchers” says Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic. This trip is especially important for the company, as up until now, the profitability of Virgin Galactic has been on the back foot with all funding being allocated to research and development as initially Branson thought space travel could be done much sooner than it actually was. At $450,000 advertised per ride, it certainly seems like the company is looking to make up for lost time.