Branson’s flight marked a milestone, nearly two decades in the making, after the billionaire businessman founded his space tourism company in 2004. VSS Unity reached an altitude of 86.1 kilometers on Sunday, which is 53.5 miles or approximately 282,000 feet. It started from Spaceport America in New Mexico and later landed back at the facility.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are more direct rivals, competing in the suborbital space tourism arena. SpaceX flies into orbit and has extended trips Astronauts worn to the International Space Station.
Musk has a ticket for a future flight on a Virgin Galactic trip.
Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson prepares to spray champagne after crashing with a crew in Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity passenger rocket plane at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, United States, on July 11, 2021 of space flew.
Joe Skipper | Reuters
“I think what these billionaires are doing is great, and I think what Elon Musk did when he went into orbit with crews of astronauts is great,” said Nelson, describing all efforts to go beyond the surface of the earth in philosophical language.
He has also dismissed criticism that it wasn’t worth it. “We never want to lose our character as explorers, as adventurers,” said Nelson, a former Democratic Senator from Florida who officially took over the helm of NASA in May.
Nelson is also a retired astronaut. 1986, as a member of the House of Representatives, Nelson served as a payload specialist on a NASA mission that orbits the earth nearly 100 times in six days.
Virgin Galactic on July 1st announced its plans for the test room flight on Sunday, including Branson’s participation. The July 20th scheduled flight from Bezos was already public by then, sparking the widespread belief that Branson was intent on defeating Bezos into space.
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic executives have walked back and forth in public about the boundaries of space, and Nelson said the spirit of competition and “trash talk” is an understandable element of what some have called the billionaire space race.
But as for the US, Nelson said the government is focused on China.
“The real space race that took place with the Soviet Union years ago will, in my opinion, increasingly take place with China as the Chinese government becomes more and more aggressive in its space program, and I could say very successfully.”
Nelson said China hasn’t been very transparent about its space program, but noted that despite geopolitical tensions on Earth, the US has been able to collaborate in space with rival nations – the former Soviet Union, now Russia.
“Back in the middle of the Cold War in 1975, an American spaceship met and docked with a Soviet spaceship, and the crews lived together for nine days,” recalled Nelson. “Since then we have had cooperation between Russians and Americans in civil space. They are our partners on board the International Space Station.”
China’s efforts so far “remind us of the early days of the old Soviet Union, but we broke that mold with the Russians,” he said.
– CNBCs Michael Sheetz contributed to this report.