NASA administrator Bill Nelson has lauded billionaire Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, who along with five other crew members soared to the edge of the space aboard the VSS Unity spacecraft on Sunday. Nelson, a former astronaut who went to space in 1986, said that it was hard to believe back then that one day it would be possible for regular tourists to travel to space the way it happened on Sunday. “We put up Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom into suborbit 60 years ago, and now we've come to this, and I think it's great,” Nelson told CNBC.
On Sunday, Branson flew more than 80km (50 miles) above the New Mexico desert aboard his rocket plane that lifted off from Spaceport America and safely returned in the vehicle's first fully crewed test flight to space. Following his flight, the 70-year-old technology and space enthusiast, who founded Virgin Galactic some 17 years ago, said that his mission was a precursor to a new era of space tourism. Virgin Galactic is all geared up for its commercial operations from next year.
A Reuters report quoted Branson as saying, “We're here to make space more accessible to all. Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”
In a video from the space, shared by Virgin Galactic on Twitter, Branson could be heard saying, "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."
Nelson, meanwhile, was quoted as saying by CNBC that what these billionaires — Branson and Jeff Bezos — were doing was “great.”
“What Elon Musk has done, going to orbit with astronaut crews, I think that is great,” Nelson said. On the criticism of these flights, he said that we can't lose our characters as “explorers or adventurers.”
Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is scheduled to travel to space on July 20 with his brother. New Shepard, a reusable suborbital rocket system designed by Blue Origin, will take its first astronaut crew to space. Aboard will be Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos and the winner of an online auction for the seat. Blue Origin, an aerospace company, was founded by Bezos in 2000.
Blue Origin said that that unlike Virgin Galactic's Unity, Bezos's New Shepard tops the 100-km (62 mile) high mark, called the Karman line, set by an international aeronautics body as defining the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and space.