WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson has his sights set on reaching space to mark this year's 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, he said amid celebrations of his company's first successful spaceflight.
Present and hopeful future astronauts gathered in Washington, D.C., yesterday (Feb. 7) alongside space enthusiasts, students and rocket engineers to celebrate Virgin Galactic's successful flight on Dec. 13. Amid all of the optimism and congratulations, Branson told Space.com he hopes to make a similar trip on July 16, 50 years to the day after the Apollo 11 astronauts blasted off for the moon.
"It's tremendously exciting and, you know, I would ideally love to be able to go up on the actual anniversary. You never know my luck, I'm working towards that," Branson said after unveiling the rocket motor from SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum's collection where Virgin Galactic and its manufacturing counterpart, The Spaceship Co. (TSC), donated the motor.
Branson shared his wish to reach space on the Apollo 11 launch anniversary while wearing a T-shirt that read "Future Astronaut Training Program." That shirt was a gift from Virgin Galactic pilot Mark "Forger" Stucky, who gave it to Branson at the unveiling ceremony as a joking reference that Stucky no longer qualifies a "future" astronaut. (He received his commercial astronaut wings earlier in the day, alongside co-pilot Rick "CJ" Sturckow.) Branson immediately shed his standard-issue white button-down for the T-shirt. [In Photos: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity Soars to Space]
Previously, Branson has said that he would travel aboard Virgin Galactic's Unity spacecraft as its first passenger. The company intends for the craft to transport paying customers to space and back on suborbital flights, furthering the commercial space industry and opening up space to more people.
Branson's dedication to the aerospace industry didn't emerge from nothing. He was inspired by space ever since he was a young child, watching the Apollo 11 moon landing. "The moon landing is what inspired me to wish to go to space," he said. "I saw it on a black-and-white television set when I was very young, and this year is the 50th anniversary so it's a very great year to celebrate."
At a celebration earlier in the day, as Branson and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao presented Stucky and Sturckow with their wings, Branson reflected on the company's success and the progress to come. "What we're marking today is a moment of historical significance, a moment of inspiration, of optimism for the future," Branson said to the crowd. "Together, we democratize space to change the world for the better."
Branson's company made history with its Dec. 13 flight, which was the first crewed commercial flight of a vehicle designed to carry paying passengers to reach space. Astronauts Stucky and Sturckow flew Unity to 51 miles (82 kilometers) above Earth, passing the 50-mile mark that the Federal Aviation Administration uses to determine when astronauts receive their wings.
The flight also made history by carrying the world's most powerful hybrid rocket used in crewed flight. That achievement too was marked at the unveiling ceremony: The Guinness Book of World Records presented TSC and Virgin Galactic with a commendation for that superlative.