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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Sir Richard Branson Set To Blast Off Into Space; Interview With Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired July 11, 2021 - 10:00   ET



KRISTIN FISHER, CNN SPACE AND DEFENSE CORRESPONDENT: And I'm sure some of the astronauts on your panel can talk to it a bit more than I can, but that feeling of going up into space, seeing the curvature of the earth, seeing that there no boundaries between countries, the thinness of the ozone layer, and then coming back and trying to make the world a better place. That's what today is all about, Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Amazing. Kristin Fisher, thank you.

Fareed Zakaria continues our live coverage right now.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria coming to you live from New York.

(Voice-over): In this hour, the billionaire Richard Branson is set to go to space. In just 30 minutes he is scheduled to take off from Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, in a space plane called VSS Unity. The Unity will go up to the sky not in the traditional way you are used to seeing rockets launched. But rather aboard a mothership called the VMS Eve.

At the height of his journey, Branson is expected to be more than 50 miles above the earth. The whole mission to space and back will last just one hour and five minutes, according to Virgin Galactic.

We'll bring it to you live when it happens, and I will be joined by the one and only Neil deGrasse Tyson, and we will talk about the billionaire space race about whether they are really going up into space, and whether the interest from the mega wealthy is good or bad for the causes of space.

And we will have the latest from CNN reporters on the ground in New Mexico where the launch is happening, Rachel Crane and Kristin Fisher.

(On-camera): Rachel, what are you hearing about what is going to happen? What are we going to see?

RACHEL CRANE, CNN INNOVATION AND SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fareed, we just had a really exciting moment happen just a few short moments ago. We saw Richard Branson and his fellow mission specialists come out of the hangar here at Spaceport America behind me, get into their vehicles and then head up to the runway where VSS Unity, their spaceship, and their mothership Eve are parked right now, ready to take off in about 30 minutes.

Now this lift-off, the mothership Eve will take VSS Unity to about 40,000 feet. That's when the spaceship will be released and the rocket engine will ignite, shooting these astronauts or soon-to-be astronauts I should say up to the edge of space where they will experience a few precious minutes of weightlessness before gliding back down here to earth and Spaceport America where they will be greeted by quite the spectacle in traditional Branson fashion.

There's a musical performance that is expected. Branson teasing a big announcement that he will be making, tons of VIPs have flocked here to Spaceport America to witness this first space flight of Branson which is nearly two decades in the making for him -- Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Thank you so much. It is so telling of the age that there was a time when it was governments that were battling to be in space, the United States versus the Soviet Union, and now, of course, it's billionaires.

So I wanted to ask Kristin Fisher about this billionaire race. Branson has essentially snuck this trip in before his fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos was able to lift off. Why do you think that is, Kristin? I mean, somebody said to me, look, Branson is raising money, he needs cash, unlike Jeff Bezos who has, you know, hundreds of billions of dollars. Ans so it was important for Richard Branson to emphasize the kind of PR dynamic here.

FISHER: Well, look, Virgin Galactic is a business. It's a publicly traded company and they have been selling seats to Spaceship 2 for several, several years now, and they have not been able to deliver on these tickets to their paying customers. And so today is about Richard Branson getting on board Spaceship 2 and showing that, hey, I believe that this is going to be a safe flight and the FAA just granted Virgin Galactic its license, approved it for commercial operations.

They are planning two more test flights and then they are set to begin flying these paying customers in 2022. And already, as I mentioned, they have between 600 and 700 people who have already put down deposits for these seats which cost somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000.

After today's flight, they could jump up to half a million. But the goal, according to Virgin Galactic, is to bring it down to right around $40,000, about the price of a car. Still very expensive but much more affordable than the $200,000 that these seats have been going for.

And in terms of these billionaire space barons, yes, of course.


A lot of people certainly think that it's no coincidence that Richard Branson decided to bump up his launch after Jeff Bezos announced that he'd be launching on July 20th. But Branson has insisted that this is not a competition. They simply had a successful test flight back in May and that this was the logical next step. But you can't miss the fact that just two days ago, Blue Origin,

Virgin Galactic's sub orbital competitor, put out a statement really pointing out all of the differences between these two companies. The fact that Blue Origin goes a bit higher into space, the fact that they have bigger windows on their spacecraft, the fact that they have an escape system, and Spaceship 2 does not have one. And there was that accident back in 2014 in which one of Virgin Galactic's test pilots lost his life.

Significant changes have been made to Spaceship 2 since then, and the chance of a similar accident like that happening today very, very slim. But, you know, it really is quite incredible that Virgin Galactic as a company survived that, and we are now here today.

ZAKARIA: Kristin, thank you.

Now to the inimitable, indomitable astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He is the head of the Haven Planetarium, the host of "Star Talk," the author of "Cosmic Queries," and also, Neil, I should point out you are the first guest to join me in person on set in 500 days.



TYSON: To share your air.

ZAKARIA: So let me first add, we should point out we're both fully vaccinated.

TYSON: Yes. Fully vaccinated. Of course.

ZAKARIA: Is Richard Branson actually going into space? As you know, the Bezos outfit has pointed out that 96 percent of humanity does not believe he is going to space. Explain what that means.

TYSON: Well, I don't know what the rest of humanity is thinking, but I know as an astrophysicist what this is. So there is an operational definition of space that is used and invoked internationally. And that definition is if you go up 100 kilometers, that counts as space. That's about 62 miles.

ZAKARIA: The Karman line or something.

TYSON: So where you get that number, it's sensibly derived. So what happens is, in daytime, we sit here and we see a blue sky. Well, why does the sky have any color at all? It's because sunlight, when it hits the particles in the air, selectively scatters blue light from the sunlight. And that happens at an extreme level at sunset. So much blue is taken from the sun that the sun looks red or amber at sunset. That's not the actual color of the sun.

It got blue light rub in front of it. Atmosphere is doing it. So if you go high enough in the atmosphere where there is not so much of those particles above you, the sky disappears in a sense. It's no longer blue, it's no longer any color at all. It becomes black even in broad daylight. So they figure that's the point where you enter space. That's in about 100 kilometers.

You'll get most of that if you go to the -- it's the 62 miles, he's going 50 miles up, you'll get most of that at that distance but it's below the international level. Now that --

ZAKARIA: But the U.S., the reason I say -- the U.S. Military has used the definition of space which is roughly where Branson is going. Navy -- I mean, pilots, I think, get a medal for going, right, for going 50 miles above.

TYSON: OK. Because you can just barely get a regular airplane that high, you know, the spy planes and things.


TYSON: So -- but consider, again I'm coming at this as an astrophysicist. If our atmosphere were half as dense as it is, then that magic height would only be half as high.

ZAKARIA: Half as high.

TYSON: And if we had one-tenth of our atmosphere pressure, it would be a tenth as high. If we didn't have atmosphere at all, are we in space walking around on the surface of a planet with no atmosphere? So that's an awkward kind of situation to start defining space to be.

ZAKARIA: To you, is this space travel?

TYSON: No. I'm sorry.


TYSON: I mean, so first of all it's suborbital.


TYSON: It's sub-orbital and NASA did that 60 years ago with Alan Shephard, OK? Launched from Cape Canaveral and landed in the ocean. And if you don't go fast enough to reach orbit, you will fall out and you'll land back on earth.

ZAKARIA: We should point out, neither Bezos nor Branson will be placed into orbit.

TYSON: Correct. OK, so, there's -- did you go high enough? Then did you get into orbit? That's another kind of -- I kind of like that one. And another one is, did you actually go somewhere? Are you going to the moon or mars or beyond? So SpaceX's concept is, we want to send people places, all right, as an effort to push this boundary, push this space exploration frontier.


Now all that being said, I'm delighted that this could be a new tourist attraction in the world. I have no problems or hesitation celebrating this fact. And it should have been happening decades ago. Decades ago. It shouldn't have been 60 years before private enterprise ended up doing what NASA did back in 1961. So more power to all of them.

ZAKARIA: But is there a gain in knowledge that comes from -- boldly to where man has gone many times before?

TYSON: Yes. Yes. Boldly going where hundreds have gone before. I mean, can I --

ZAKARIA: Yes. Yes.

TYSON: Can I invoke this here? OK. I just found this laying around on the desk.


TYSON: You're GPS. Good. So this is a typical schoolroom globe. OK. And you want to ask, by the way, how high up does the space station orbit? The space station.


TYSON: Authentically a space-faring vessel. That would, if it's -- the earth's size it would be one centimeter above the surface.


TYSON: If you poll people, you said, where do you think the space station is, they'll stick it out here somewhere. It is one centimeter. OK. Now you're going to ask, what happens if you -- where is this magic boundary where you start seeing? Well, that would be two millimeters above the surface.


TYSON: And now you're going to be sort of less than that. And so, you know, the thickness of maybe two dimes above the surface. And so, OK, you want to call it space because, you know, regular people haven't done that before? So there is a novelty to it? Oh, and by the way, just for context, I got this apple here. This is slightly smaller than the size of the moon. So you might ask, well, where is the moon on this scale? The moon is 10 meters away in the next room.


TYSON: So that's why it takes eight minutes to get to orbit and three days to get to the moon. That's actual space travel. OK. So just to -- for context. So I see it not as oh, we're going into space. No, you're getting a nice view of the earth. And I don't even know if you're going to see the curvature.

I did some calculations and I'm thinking they're not. If you're two millimeters above the surface of this globe, you're not getting the whole -- this perspective that everybody else.

But national boundaries disappear. It's an overview effect that you will get a little bit of even at 50 miles up. So more power to them. That's fine.

ZAKARIA: Kristin Fisher, can I come back to you for a second?

TYSON: Can I eat this apple, by the way?

ZAKARIA: I want to ask -- Neil wants to eat his apple. I think he can.

Kristin, your parents are both astronauts, and I wondered whether you have some perspective about what did they see when they went up? Did they talk about the curvature of the earth? What did they -- what are your memories of the conversations with them?

FISHER: Well, it's kind of the same thing that Richard Branson has been talking so much about, hoping that he's going to get to see and hoping that he can share with all of his future customers, and that is really just seeing earth from afar, seeing it all in one glance.

And my mom and dad often talked about how you would never see any boundaries between countries. You could see just how thin the atmosphere was, how fragile it was. And, you know, any time you go into space, people come back and say, you know, gosh, it was truly a transformative experience. Some even call it a religious experience. It really does seem to change a person.

And it's very clear that Richard Branson -- I mean, he has been talking about wanting to go to space since the late '80s at the latest. He founded this company back in 2004 and has been trying to make this happen ever since. And there have been setbacks. There have been financial issues, there have been tragedies. And you know, all of these things are just inherent to space flight. You've heard the phrase the mantra space is hard, because it really, really is.

But the fact that Richard Branson and the entire Virgin Galactic team is here today, and he is truly on the verge of having that transformative moment and then being able to bring it back and give other humans this kind of experience, it's really a special day. And a special day for the state of New Mexico, too, because I mean if you look at where we are, this is called Spaceport America.

It is a commercial space port, intended to be a hub for sub-orbital space tourism. And this has been operational for about 10 years, all waiting for the first paying customers to take flight, which we now believe will be in early 2022 sometime if everything goes OK. But I think the number one thing my parents and every astronaut that I've spoken to has said is just, you know, seeing that pale blue dot really just strikes a chord in a way that you can't quite process until you see it.


A lot of people get very emotional, and I would imagine that there might even be some tears up on board that spaceship when Richard Branson and the rest of the Unity 22 crew finally get to see those visions of earth from space -- Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Kristin Fisher, thank you so much. Rachel, any updates? Tell us what you're seeing on the ground.

CRANE: Well, Fareed, we are really now in the final countdown here. This takeoff is scheduled for 10:30 Eastern, 8:30 local. Now of course, as we saw this morning with the weather delay, that's subject to change a little bit, and what we're lucky about here is that this is not an instantaneous launch window which we see with ISS launch, with the SpaceX launches that we've recently seen from the Kennedy Space Center.

But, Fareed, I want to point out that it is really, really important for viewers, people to understand that this is still a test flight. Virgin Galactic has not started their commercial operations. They don't intend to until the start of 2022. They intend to have two additional test flights following this one today. So Richard Branson is flying as a mission specialist on board this flight this afternoon.

There will be three other mission specialists with him. One of them will be conducting research, actually, on board the spaceship, testing a gene expression in plants during this suborbital trip. But, you know, obviously there is a huge spectacle here on the ground. I don't know if you can hear the music behind me, but there's a huge crowd. There's been, you know, a ton of energy in there. Hundreds of people milling about.

But it is very important to remember that this is still a test flight, and as a result, the company has taken extra precautions to ensure the safety of the space flight participants. They're all wearing parachutes. There is also supplemental oxygen on board. The pilots during the flights, they wear oxygen masks. But the passengers, they don't have to, although they do have supplemental oxygen by their side if need be.

Also I had the opportunity to speak to Mike Moses just a few days ago who is their head of safety, and he told me that they also, in case of cabin depressurization, if there is a leak on board, they have thought four times the amount of oxygen needed to keep the spaceship pressurized and make sure that this crew and the space flight participants stay safe.

So, again, important to remember that despite the spectacle around us, this still is a test flight. The company is still in their testing phases gathering data. And Richard Branson, his objective here is to test the astronaut experience. So he's really been taking notes as he's been going through his training the last few days here at Spaceport America on what he wants the experience to be like for those some 600 passengers that have paid, you know, around $200,000 a seat, so wanting to make sure that they get the best experience possible.

Also not for nothing, but because there is a competitor out there, Blue Origin, who also soon will be selling seats to space enthusiasts around the world. And Branson, I have spoken with him many a time, as recently as just a few days ago, him telling that they do not see this as a race, that this accelerated timeline was the result of an updated FAA license allowing Virgin Galactic to fly space flight participants, not just crew, so that's why he was able to join the flight as well, as flawless test flight.

The company saying they had a flawless test flight just a few weeks ago. So those three things coupled together allowed the engineers to think that, you know, they could put their boss, Sir Richard Branson, on this flight.

I also want to point out Mike Moses, the gentleman that I spoke to about safety I was just speaking of, his wife Beth Moses is also on this flight. She's one of the mission specialists. So talk about the pressure being on. Not only is the world watching, but the man who is the president of safety for this company has both his boss and his wife on board, so it certainly shows a lot of confidence in the system that Virgin Galactic has created -- Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Rachel, totally fascinating. Thank you so much.

We are going to take a quick break while we're waiting for the astronauts to go to the launch vehicles. We will be back in a moment.



ZAKARIA: And we are back awaiting the liftoff of mothership Eve which will take Richard Branson to space. Eve will carry Unity, a space plane which will take Branson into space. We're back with Neil deGrasse Tyson here in New York, Rachel Crane and Kristin Fisher at the Spaceport in New Mexico.

Neil, let me ask you to tell us a little bit about what is this plane compared to the kind of rockets we think of when we think of space travel, meaning going to the moon or something?

TYSON: Yes. So let's go back to Alan Shephard in 1961. He was on a Mercury Redstone sort of launch system, and it was a capsule. And this is all in preparation for actually achieving orbit for the subsequent missions. So in that situation, you launch with the rotation of the earth because ultimately you want to go into orbit, and if you launch with the rotation, you get that extra speed that the rotation of the earth endows you on launch.

So launching east is always better when you want to reach orbit. So they practice this and he had a suborbital flight and landed in the ocean in his capsule. When you have space plane, you get to reach those same altitudes but then sort of fall back to earth and then you experience that weightlessness. It's only while you're falling when the rockets are firing, you feel those G-forces. When the rockets turn off and then you just sort of coast, that's when you're weightless.

But the moment it hits the atmosphere again, it's sufficient density and the control surfaces of the wings, that now matter. That's a good thing because now it can find its way back to New Mexico and land on a runway, and we don't have to fish them out of the ocean the way we had to fish Alan Shepard. So that's a fundamental difference. And that's why it looks like an airplane but a really cool futuristic airplane for that reason. ZAKARIA: When you describe the difference between this kind of

suborbital travel and space travel where you achieve orbit, does it tell us that, you know, it's going to be a really long while before we can have tourists doing orbital space travel?

TYSON: That's a perceptive comment and question. So the fact is, what it takes to go above this magic sort of 50, 60-mile boundary and what it takes to go into orbit are completely different things. It's completely different because to achieve orbit, what you're actually doing is you're giving yourself -- when you see rockets launch, you say to yourself, all those engines are to go up. No, most of that energy is to go sideways. You remember the we're entering the role program of the shuttle.

The shuttle didn't keep going straight up, it went down range. Why? Because what you're doing is you're giving it enough speed so that when you shut off the engines, it just falls back to earth. But it's going so fast sideways --


ZAKARIA: It's like 20,000 miles an hour, something like that.

TYSON: Yes, 18,000 miles an hour sideways, but it's going so fast that as it falls to earth, earth's curvature means it's not getting closer to earth. This is the remarkable thing about an orbit. Isaac Newton first wrote this down back in 1687. So astronauts are in freefall towards earth but going so fast sideways they'll never collide with earth. That's called an orbit. So rockets that are in orbit, astronauts, they're not sustained in orbit from any kind of rocket propulsion or anything.

That's just the speed you need in order to maintain that. And so people think if you're in space, you are weightless. No, if you're falling, no matter where in the universe, you are weightless. You could cut the cables on an elevator -- no, you wouldn't do that. But if that happened --

ZAKARIA: You'd feel weightless for a while.

TYSON: For a while until you're a pile of goo when you hit the boom. So that's why for this mission, only after the rockets have stopped firing and it then begins its descent back to earth, like I said, before it becomes an airplane again, that's when you're weightless. And it's a brief period of time. I forgot what the advertised number is.

ZAKARIA: Is that a tricky moment, the point at which the plane is falling, not actually using its own power, and then have to regain control to land on a runway?

TYSON: Yes. If the plane is well designed, then what will happen is when it starts feeling the air, then the pilot can control and stabilize what the plane is doing. Usually computers help that. And so that's why you have all these control surfaces to enable this. So yes, wild falling, it sounds dangerous, but, yes, in that moment the plane can't do much of anything because it can't be a plane and it ran out of its rockets.

ZAKARIA: The plane is effectively an object in space.

TYSON: It's an object.


TYSON: OK. Yes, it's a brick. Until it can be an airplane again, it's just a brick.

ZAKARIA: While I have you and before we have to -- you know, we have to get going, speaking of objects in space, what did you make of the U.S. government report of all these pilots seeing what were really UFOs? They called them some fancy government term.

TYSON: Yes, I don't know why the government calls them UAPs. Who are they fooling, right? Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon. They're UFOs. OK. Just -- don't pretend like what it is that it isn't. So I'm as intrigued as the next person about these unexplained detections from -- many of them were Navy pilots.


TYSON: So I don't know what they are. If I were a betting person, I'd say maybe it's a glitch in the software or the hardware. Any time you have some new, modern, fancy anything, there are glitches in it. You know this from when you have to update your software, OK? So -- and anyone who declares this has no errors means it doesn't have any errors, they haven't found them yet.

ZAKARIA: Well, and --

TYSON: So I'm just saying that -- and it could be aliens. But that is insufficient evidence to convince me.

ZAKARIA: And I've been told that a lot of times the way you take these images, it tells you a lot. People used to think that the moon photographs were fake because they'd say you can't see any stars. But that was apparently all about the exposure.

TYSON: Yes, of course.

ZAKARIA: If you have an exposure where you're looking at near objects, the faraway objects like stars disappear.

TYSON: It's bright objects.


TYSON: So if it's bright and you're properly exposed for the surface of the moon, you're not going to see anything there.


TYSON: So anyone who said that had no clue about the field of photography and how photography works. ZAKARIA: And so a lot of this would be --

TYSON: Yet they're getting platformed to make such declarations but that's the kind of world we live in.


ZAKARIA: All right. I want to make sure we're not missing anything.

Rachel, where do we stand?

CRANE: Well, Fareed, I want to point out that Michael Colglazier, the CEO of Virgin Galactic, just came out on the stage behind me calling everybody inside the tents because of course it's hot here in New Mexico to come outside, telling everyone that this historic space flight is soon to take off in about 10 or 15 minutes. They are set to start their livestream of the event. Of course there is an event surrounding the event in typical Richard Branson style.

Colbert will be hosting the live stream. There will also be a musical performance. But there are certainly -- I've got to tell you the energy surrounding me, it just went up about seven notches, everybody knowing that this space flight is about to take off. And I want to remind our viewers what they're going to see in a couple of minutes.

Now VSS Unity is this spaceship that the space flight participants, Richard Branson and the mission specialists, the pilots are currently in. It's made into the mothership Eve. It will take off from the runway which is 12,000 feet here at spaceport America, and it will climb to around 40,000 feet. That's when Eve will release VSS Unity, and it will be literally in freefall for a few seconds before that rocket engine ignites, catapulting the passengers up to Mach 3, three times the speed of sound.

There's a possibility we could even hear the sonic booms here.


We'll have to wait and see. But that's -- they'll have a few minutes climbing up to space where they will experience a few minutes of weightlessness. They'll be traveling about 50 miles above earth. That is the U.S. boundary for space, so they will just be touching into the edge of space before coming back down here to earth, making a glide touchdown.

CRANE: And that's when we expect the crowds to go wild here at Spaceport America, Sir Richard Branson making this historic flight that for him is two decades in the making.

You know, he bought the technology to SpaceShipOne, which one the Ansari XPRIZE back in 2004. Now, the Ansari X Prize challenged a non- government entity to fly a reusable space plane to space twice in two weeks.

So, after seeing that, Richard Branson, who has always wanted to go to space, he says, since he saw the Apollo landings on the Moon back when he was a child, he bought that technology, and he thought that, you know, it would maybe be five years until he was making his journey to space.

But, as we've seen, it's taken a lot, lot longer than that, which is very typical in space travel, space exploration. There's always delays, delays. As we saw even this morning, up to the last minute, there is usually even weather delays, Fareed.

But everybody here on the ground getting very excited. They're blasting music behind me, picking up the energy for everybody here who has come from all over the world to witness this historic space flight.

In fact, one of the mission specialists on board, she's an Indian- American, her parents traveling from India to watch their daughter, who will be conducting the research payloads on board. They're actually will be doing a research study on gene expression of plants during this suborbital flight.

So it's not just about joyrides to space; there's actually research payloads that Virgin Galactic has been flying on these recent test flights.

Also want to point out, Fareed, for our viewers, it's important to remember that this is still a test flight, Virgin Galactic saying that they don't expect to start their commercial operations until the beginning of 2022, and as a result they're taking extra safety precautions.

Everybody on board will be, in fact, wearing a parachute. The company has not said if that will continue beyond the test flight program, but everybody on board today, we know that they will be wearing parachutes over -- with their space suits, also supplemental oxygen on board for the passengers.

We'll see images from, you know, the cabin, and inside the cabin, hopefully, during the livestream. But the pilots, they wear oxygen during the entirety of the space flight. The passengers, however, they do not. But because, as I pointed out, this is still a test flight, the fourth test flight for Virgin Galactic to date, once it takes off, they will have the ability, if in fact there is cabin depressurization, to put an oxygen mask on.

Also Mike Moses, the president of safety for Virgin Galactic, telling me that there is additional oxygen on board in case there is any kind of leak at all. They have four times the amount of oxygen on board that is necessary to continue to keep it pressurized, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Thank you, Rachel.

Kristin, you heard Rachel describing the -- the, kind of, the showbiz element to all this. Stephen Colbert, you know, a big, big plan ceremony, songs, things like that. Do we know whether Jeff Bezos and Blue Origins is going to do something similar?

As we were talking earlier, he doesn't need to raise money the way Richard Branson does. So is he foregoing this kind of massive P.R. or is he going to do another -- another one of these -- these mega- events?

FISHER: Well, he's also a very different person in charge of a very different kind of company. Over the years Blue Origin has been much more quiet and secretive in terms of what they do than the much flashier Virgin Galactic.

And so what we're going to see when Jeff Bezos launches on Blue Origin's New Shepard vehicle in just a few days down in Texas is a much quieter affair, most likely. They're going to have fewer press, fewer events, fewer things for people to enjoy when they're actually on site.

But that's just, kind of, the culture and the philosophy of these two companies. Blue Origin, kind of, does things slowly and quietly; Virgin Galactic much louder and flashy, just like their founders.

The other key difference, as we've been talking about, is, of course, these two different types of spacecrafts. And the difference between them is just huge. You take a look at Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, and, you know, we've been talking about it looks like just like a plane. It's a space plane, very similar to NASA's Space Shuttle.

And one of the things we have not talked about is just how much test pilots love it, because they can actually fly it. This is a mostly analog spaceship, meaning that the pilots are still responsible for firing the rocket engine, for turning it off, and for deploying that feathering system that allows a spaceship to -- to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.


If you're a test pilot, this is a fun spaceship to fly because you're in control of it, which is exactly why so many NASA Space Shuttle astronauts loved to fly the Space Shuttle.

Now, the downside is it can be a little bit more dangerous, as we saw with the two shuttle accidents, and then we saw another accident in 2014 with Virgin Galactic, in which it was actually a co-pilot's error that led to his death, a terrible tragedy that the Virgin Galactic team had a very, very tough time recovering from. But they have, and we are here today.

And then, on the other side of this, you have, you know, Blue Origin's spaceship, which is much more your traditional rocket and capsule. Think of the Apollo Saturn V rocket. It's vertical. You've got a rocket, a capsule on top. It goes straight up, straight down.

There's no wings on it. And it does have an escape system, so if something happens, that capsule on top can jettison away from the rocket. It has been tested many times and they feel very confident, so confident that they're putting Jeff Bezos on top of it in just a few days.

But as for Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, they too clearly feel very confident about the safety of this vehicle. This will be their fourth crude test flight up into space, the first time that it is fully crewed, and, you know, one other thing, Fareed, it was such a treat to see how Richard Branson decided to get to Spaceport America today.

You know, one of the reasons he talked so much about going up into space is the positive effect that it can have on humanity in terms of making them more environmentally conscious, so Richard Branson choosing to ride his own bike here to Spaceport America this morning -- quite a sight.

ZAKARIA: And there you see the plane taxiing, presumably getting ready. At the very least, we're getting closer to the point where we will see some kind of a takeoff.

Neil, what do you think of that idea that -- you know, that people like Branson and others have talked about, that maybe, if people -- if more people get up into space, they will realize how fragile the ecosystem is, how small we are, how -- you know, the chance -- we tend to have a view that nature is benign, that nature is going to take care of us. And, you know, the more perspective you gain, you realize nature is just physics, chemistry and biology, and it can go pretty seriously awry.

TYSON: Yes. And what we should do is, in all the first voyages to orbit, we should send all the politicians.


And they'll come back different, all right, in an important way. Because, I mean, consider a point made earlier, that from space you don't see national boundaries. You can see cities at night. That's kind of interesting. But national boundaries disappear, and -- whereas a politician exists completely within a mindset of national boundaries.

So these perspectives, these "overview effect," as NASA describes it -- in my field we would call it a "cosmic perspective," it can change you. And it generally only ever changes you for the better. It makes you more humble. It makes you more respectful of Earth as an ecosystem that sustains us.

Because it's so easy to think only about your own little circumstances and your own moment and your own place. So it's one of the, sort of, the benefits of having gone into space in the first place. You will just look at how people have started thinking about Earth as -- you know, the climate, the -- here's another little thing to notice.

Look at any illustration of Earth before 1965, before the Apollo -- Gemini and Apollo. No one drew clouds on the Earth. If they ever said "Draw Earth," you would just draw continents and the oceans and that's it. The idea that clouds are there, and that matters. And, by the way, the cloud layer, the atmospheric layer, is not very thick.

In fact, the atmosphere is to earth as the skin of an apple is to the apple. And you get to see that from space. And you say, "Oh, my gosh. I'm not sitting at the base of this ocean of air."


TYSON: "I am a participant in this thin layer of something that sustains me and the rest of the ecosystem. Maybe I should take better care of it."

ZAKARIA: And it can break very easily, as you just demonstrated by eating the apple.

Rachel Crane, we -- I'm wondering, you said we were probably five to seven minutes away. Five to seven minutes away, are we -- as happens with these things, has that been pushed off a little bit?

CRANE: Well, Fareed, I've got to tell you, I have butterflies in my stomach. I have eyes on the plane right now. I have eyes on Mothership Eve, on VSS Unity. It is at the end of the -- the runway. We saw it taxi a moment ago.


The livestream here on site has started. So we are really just, you know, at the final countdown here for this historic test flight...


... and Richard Branson's first flight on his -- oh, do we have movement?

I think we -- I think it's starting to move right now.

ZAKARIA: It's starting to move, yeah.

CRANE: Fareed, it is starting to move. We are -- this thing is taking off today.

And as we were talking about this whole time, this flight is two decades in the making, Richard Branson saying that he has dreamed of this day, going to space, for -- since he was a child -- two decades in the making here. The whole team at Virgin Galactic, you know, they've been talking about "Richard's flight," "Richard's flight," since the beginning of the company. Today is the day.

We're -- you know, everything, kind of...


Oh, now...

ZAKARIA: There it goes.

CRANE: You hear the cheering behind me, Fareed? There it is.

For a moment, it went silent. You could hear almost a pin drop, but now everybody's cheering. This thing is about to take off. You see -- we have liftoff, Fareed. We have liftoff here at Spaceport

America, of Mothership Eve and VSS Unity, Sir Richard Branson making his historic first flight to suborbital space on the spacecraft that he and his team at Virgin Galactic created.

I mean, that is just a beautiful sight to see. I've got to tell you, Fareed, we've been -- space enthusiasts around the world, space reporters like myself, we have been following the journey of this company and the tenaciousness and the passion that they have poured into this program. And to finally see this flight take off with Sir Richard Branson, the company's founder, I mean, wow.

Now, let me tell you what the next few moments are going to be like. For about 40 minutes, VSS Unity and Eve will be mated together. They will be climbing to an altitude of about 40,000 to 50,000 feet. That's when VSS Unity will be released from the Mothership Eve. And it will be in free-fall for a few seconds.

After that, the rocket motor will ignite, blasting off the passengers to the edge of space. That rocket motor will burn for about 60 seconds. The passengers on board will experience about 3Gs. The motor will be cut, and that's when those passengers will express a few minutes of precious weightlessness, the moment that Sir Richard Branson has been waiting for since he was a child, where he will get those astronaut wings.

Hopefully we'll get some views from inside the cabin. Now, after those minutes of weightlessness, the feathering system will be deployed and the spaceship and the mission specialists, the pilots, they will glide back to Earth here at Spaceport America, and in typical Richard Branson fashion, they have created quite the event surrounding this space flight.

We know that there will be a musical performance by Khalid and lots of VIPs in -- in the audience today. Richard Branson's friends and family have come, but we also know that fellow -- fellow space founder Elon Musk also in the crowd today to wish Branson well. Jeff Bezos also tweeting, or rather posting on Instagram, well wishes to Richard Branson and the Virgin Galactic team on the flight today.

And that's because, despite the competitive spirit between these, you know, space barons, as we call them, the space billionaires, a win today for Virgin Galactic and Sir Richard Branson is a win for the entire aerospace community.

I mean, these people, everybody, they do this because they're passionate about it, because they're all mission-driven. The people at Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson say that their goal is to democratize space, to allow more average citizens to experience the -- what they call the "overview effect," that seeing the curvature of the Earth and -- and seeing, you know, the Earth without boundaries and getting a sense that we all are just, you know, travelers on spaceship Earth.

Everybody who ever has traveled to space speaks about how it fundamentally changes them, and they really become, you know, environmentalists and, as I said, you know, stewards of spaceship Earth.

So that's what Richard Branson is really dedicated to doing, as well as Blue Origin. They also say that that's a huge part of their mission, of opening up that final frontier of space, allowing more people to travel.

Of course, everybody, you know, highlights, after I say that, the price tag right now. We know that the --- about 600 people have paid around $200,000 a seat to get a ticket to ride on Virgin Galactic's system. They've been waiting for a very long time to take that flight. Today signals that they are, you know, a big step closer to taking flight themselves.

Now, I also want to point out that Blue Origin, who is Virgin Galactic's direct competitor here, they have not started selling their tickets, but, you know, Jeff Bezos, he has planned to take his historical flight on his suborbital system, New Shepard, on July 20th. That will be the first crewed launch of that system ever. That's because his space craft is automated. There are no pilots on board.

So for all these test flights that they have flown, they have not had anybody on board. Today is the fourth crude space flight for Virgin Galactic.


But Blue Origin, they have not started selling their tickets. We don't know what the going price will be. But we do know that one person has paid $28 million to make history with Blue Origin and be inside of that capsule when they take off on July 20th.

But of course, today is all about Virgin Galactic and Sir Richard Branson. We are all hotly anticipating that moment for when we get to hopefully see those images of Richard Branson and his fellow mission specialists weightless in space, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Rachel, thank you.

Neil, let me ask you about the things Rachel was talking about, you know, which is this idea that Branson has, that Bezos has, that Musk has that what we need to really start thinking about is living and working in space.

The way I think Bezos puts it is "You want to be able to live and work in space for the benefit of the Earth," that you move things like heavy manufacturing to places up in space. Elon Musk talks about living and potentially dying on Mars.

Is this all science...


TYSON: I think he said something like, "I'd rather die on Mars than live in..."

ZAKARIA: Without -- without having traveled there. (LAUGHTER)

So my question to you is, is this science fiction, or is this -- is it conceivable that in 10 years some of this stuff will start happening?

TYSON: People began predicting, right after we landed on the Moon, that within decades we'd have tens of thousands of people living and working in space. That did not come forth in that -- we came nowhere near that -- at most, you know, a few people on the Space Station, that was it -- on the International Space Station.

Let me talk about space from a different angle. Space basically has unlimited resources, all right?

There are asteroids that have more rare earth elements on it than have ever been mined on earth, as well as gold and platinum and iridium. There are comets that have more fresh water on them than any freshwater supply on earth, and there they are just flying by, right, just minding their own business.

And so the idea that, "Well, we're on Earth and we have to solve our Earth problems first before we go out into space," to me it kind of sounds like a conversation that might have happened in the cave 30,000 years ago. You get some intrepid next generation say, "I want to go outside the cave and look and see what's there."

And the elders say, "No, we have cave problems. Let's solve the cave problems first before you go outside." That's, kind of, what it looks like to me.

ZAKARIA: But -- but, maybe -- I don't worry about that. I want us to solve cave problems and the problems outside the cave.

TYSON: Thank you. You both, yes.

ZAKARIA: But I do wonder, I mean -- look, what do I know? But you look at the movie "The Martian," and you're reminded there's no oxygen on Mars. It's not going to be that easy to live and work in places where you're wearing space suits, you've got oxygen. I mean, this seems a little bit harder than people are making it sound.

TYSON: Space is hard, yes. Space is dangerous, yes. And we're all very hopeful that this -- this mission today goes off without a hitch. But, by the way, let me call to your attention that, after the Challenger disaster and we had this, sort of, public funeral, memorial, for all of the fallen astronauts, to a person everyone asked of the family members, "Should we stop this exploration in space? Is it too dangerous?"

To a person, they said, "No, you have to continue. In honor of their loss, you have to continue so that they did not die in vain."

And what was it, the year after we lost more people trying to ascend Mount Everest than ever before, in subsequent years, even more people wanted to climb it?


TYSON: So the idea that there's a frontier to be breached by the energy and inspiration and will of some members of our species, that's what got us out of the cave in the first place.

ZAKARIA: Right. I think it was John Kennedy who said the reason we go up into space is not because it's easy...

TYSON: But because it's hard.

ZAKARIA: Because it's hard.


ZAKARIA: We're going to take a quick break. We will be back in a moment with the latest from the skies as Richard Branson is going into space.



ZAKARIA: And we are back as Richard Branson goes to space.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is here with me in New York. Rachel Crane and Kristin Fisher are at the Spaceport in New Mexico.

Kristin, you were talking about pilots and how they fell about this -- this kind of flying. Describe what -- what is your sense of that plane we saw taking off, how fast does it go and why do pilots love flying it?

FISHER: They love flying it because they're actually flying it. Much like the Space Shuttle, this is a pretty much fully analog plane in the sense that these pilots are the ones firing those rocket engines, turning them off and then deploying the space plane's feathering system to allow it to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.

But, Neil, you know what I was just thinking about, it was 10 years ago this month that NASA retired a very similar-looking spacecraft, the Space Shuttle. And it took nearly a decade before the United States was able to launch American astronauts from U.S. soil again.

During that dry spell, we had to launch American astronauts on a Russian Soyuz rocket. And during that time, look at what the commercial space industry was able to accomplish.

Both Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX were able to deliver re-usable rockets. Elon Musk was able to send NASA astronauts up to the International Space Station, hundreds of payloads.

Now today, we have Richard Branson launching into space on the spacecraft that he helped fund and spent so many years developing. And, you know, during these last 10 years, while the Space Shuttle was retired, there was such a waning interest in space. But now, if you had any doubt about whether or not people are

interested in space again, the livestream carrying this launch, it just had about 400,000 people watching on YouTube. Space is back. Neil?

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you, Rachel, we talk a lot about the private sector here, which is absolutely right, but if you look at Elon Musk's company, if you look at the basic funding, the government is still a very large player here.

I assume that there are good relations between NASA and Richard Branson's company, Blue Origin, and we know with Elon Musk, of course, because they are the principal funder and customer for -- for SpaceX.

CRANE: Yes, you're right, Fareed, the FAA highly involved in the launch here today. In fact, the whole reason that Richard Branson was able to board this flight and accelerate his timeline for his first space flight was because the FAA granted Virgin Galactic an updated license to fly what they call "space flight participants."

So the FAA is -- Virgin Galactic in compliance with the FAA, working very, very closely on this launch as well as future launches; same thing with blue origin.

Also interesting to point out that the FAA, they are focused on the safety of the people and the property here on the ground, but not actually the people in the spacecraft. So they actually sign a waiver and they -- it's informed consent, kind of like a bungee jumper does. So the FAA, they are not regulating yet the -- the passengers on board the air -- the spacecraft, rather.


Now, there are calls for more regulation in the near future, yet to be seen what will happen with that. But right now, they're flying under informed consent, as I said, much like a bungee jumper does.

But I have to return to just the moment that we experienced here at Spaceport America just about, you know, 10 minutes ago. Seeing VSS Unity and Eve take off after nearly two decades, Fareed, I had goosebumps all over my body. Everybody here at Spaceport America had their chins, their eyes pointed to the sky to take in and absorb this historic moment, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Rachel, so great to hear you and that -- and that enthusiasm which you are clearly reflecting what is going on at -- with the crowd out there.

Neil, I want to pick up on something Rachel mentioned. You know, we're talking about this suborbital stuff, yeah, it's been done before, but it is risky, and it's interesting to note that the FAA made them sign a waiver saying "You're on your own, buddies, when you're up there in space."

The fact that people like Bezos and Branson are actually flying themselves and not just paying for it, that's significant. TYSON: I think so. And I've been asked many times, would I take any

one of these spacecraft, especially Elon saying, "Let's send people to Mars." They ask would I go on such a mission?

And I joked. I said, "No, I won't do that until he sends his mother and brings her back safely. Then I'll judge that it's safe enough."

But here we have -- they're doing one better, where the actual founders of the companies are -- so they have literal skin in the game. And I think that sends an important message to any future customers that might consider buying a seat, of course.

ZAKARIA: So as we keep exploring space, Neil -- you write about this in your book, so I've got to ask you, are we alone or are they -- are we going to find people out there?

TYSON: I think it's one of the greatest unanswered questions that we have ever posed to ourselves as a species. You look up at night and you just wonder, are we alone?

In the early days before we had visited the planets, are there life forms on all the other planets -- or now on other planets?

We have more than 4,000 exo-planets in the catalogs today. So I spent a whole section of the "Cosmic Queries" book exploring all of our efforts to try to determine whether or not we are alone in the universe.

And I'll just say, with the ingredients we're made of, you know, the hydrogen, the oxygen, the carbon, the carbon-based life, as any sci fi fan knows, you just look at those ingredients and say, "Wait a minute, these ingredients are everywhere we look in the universe."

And on Earth, these ingredients assemble to form self-replicating life really quickly, all right?

So -- so we've got the ingredients; the time doesn't seem to matter here; so -- so we really -- we have very high hopes and expectations to discover life elsewhere in the universe. And it's a completely different question whether there's life that came to visit Navy pilots...


... and not anyone else in the world...


TYSON: ... where we have 3 billion smartphones. We basically crowd- source any possible alien invasion that could happen anywhere in the world, because everybody's got a high-resolution color video camera.

ZAKARIA: I always come back to this thought, when you -- when thinking about exactly what you are describing, the fact that we are essentially a collection of chemical -- chemicals and equations.

TYSON: Some of my best friends are made of chemicals.

ZAKARIA: Exactly.



ZAKARIA: ... that, actually, life out there is all that, and that, you know, it gives me a feeling of the fragility of -- of life that, you know, when you look at the pandemic, when you look at global warming, you just realize to yourself, take good care, because if these chemicals get out of balance, things can go seriously awry.

There isn't a -- a generous, benign Mother Nature out there looking after us.

TYSON: And not only that, when you look at Earth from space, a point made by Carl Sagan in his book "The Pale Blue Dot," you look at it and you realize we are surrounded by emptiness. And there's no sign or hope of anyone coming to save us from ourselves.

So the more knowledge we can glean about our relationship to Earth, the ecosystem, the water in the atmosphere, the better shepherds we can be for future generations to come. And otherwise we ought to just move back to the cave or prepare for our own extinction.

ZAKARIA: From Alan Shepard's mission to being good shepherds, a great...


... a great parallel pun. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Rachel Crane, Kristin Fisher, thank you for joining me. And thanks to all of you for being part of this very special "Global Public Square." Live coverage continues with Brian Stelter, right now.