Return to Transcripts main page

Reliable Sources

Virgin Galactic Launches Billionaire Founder Into Space; Richard Branson Safely Lands After Touching Edge Of Space. Aired 11a- 12p ET

Aired July 11, 2021 - 11:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brian Stelter, live in New York, picking up CNN's live coverage of what is a new space race in -- on Earth, taking off from earth, heading up to the edge of space.


In just a few minutes, that is where Richard Branson and the other passengers aboard Unity 22, that's where they're going to reach. You can see about 20 minutes ago, the aircraft, the mothership, taking off down this 12,500-foot runway in rural New Mexico.

So, we've seen the mother ship take off, now we're waiting for that pivotal moment when the rocket will blast and when the space plane will actually reach the edge of space. To give you a sense of timing, we are expecting that in the next 20 minutes, and once we reach that point, that is when Branson and the other passengers will experience weightlessness and will earn their astronaut wings.

So, in the next few minutes, we'll watch it happen live here on CNN.

Let's begin by heading to Kristin Fisher, CNN space and defense correspondent, who is there, and what looks like the desert but it's one of the most remarkable places in the world right now.

Kristin, welcome to CNN. It's your first weekend on the air with us. You couldn't have picked a better time to start.

What does this feel like in Truth and Consequences, New Mexico?

KRISTIN FISHER, CNN SPACE AND DEFENSE CORRESPONDENT: It feels incredibly exciting. What a first day at CNN. I can't believe it.

And, you know, we're here in a desert because there is not a lot around here, so if something bad were to happen, there is a lot of places where this spaceship could go. As you said, a very aptly named Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and so we watched as Spaceship 2 took off about 20 minutes ago, attached to Mothership Eve, which is the name of Richard Branson's mom, aptly named for a mothership, and now, we're just waiting for it to get to the proper altitude.

At that point, about 20 to 30 minutes, what we're going to see is the Mothership Eve release Spaceship 2. It's going to go in a freefall for a little bit and then the pilots are going to ignite the rocket engine, a critical moment and a critical distinction for this spacecraft.

This is flown entirely by the pilots, very different than some of the other suborbital spacecraft companies' spaceships. And then from then, Spaceship 2 is going to rocket up into space, and then right when it hits the peak, you're going to see those few minutes of weightlessness.

And, Brian, one of the most amazing things about this is we should get to see some of this happening live. I mean, Richard Branson, always the show man, always the daredevil. He wants to bring space to the masses, space travel to the masses. And one of the ways he wants to do that is to getting excited about it, by getting more people pay for seats on his spacecraft, and then hopefully, he'll be able to bring the cost down so more and more people are able to experience what he is going to be able to experience today.

So, after they get those few precious minutes of weightlessness, they're going to glide down to earth, land right here on the runway just like you saw the space shuttle do or any old airplane do, and then there is going to be a big celebration.

There's going to be music and, of course, Richard Branson and the rest of his Unity 22 crew will actually be awarded their astronaut pins.

So, I know there's been a lot of dispute between Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, you know, are they actually hitting the threshold of space? There is some disagreement between the international community in the United States about where that line actually starts. But Richard Branson says and Virgin Galactic say, hey, we're weightless, you see the curvature of the earth, we're in space, we're going to get those pins -- Brian.

STELTER: They're going to a lot further than I've ever been, so that's something.

FISHER: Right.

STELTER: So, as we watch, I want to let everybody know at home there are no live pictures right now from the mothership. As soon as we have those images, we're going to bring them to you, of course.

We do expect we're going to see some of those key moments that Kristin was talking about.

So, Kristin, all this is going to go down in the next half hour or so. This is not a multi-long series of weightlessness. It's really a few minutes, the key minutes for Richard Branson and his fellow passengers.

FISHER: So, this is what's called a suborbital flight, meaning, you know, most -- when you think about space flight, you think about an orbital flight when you launch all the way up into orbit and you circle, you orbit, the earth. Richard Branson, he's not going to do that, and neither is Jeff Bezos in a few days. These are suborbital flights, very short. It's just a few minutes of weightlessness.

And, of course, while it is incredibly difficult to do this, it took virgin galactic and the entire team two decades to get to where we are today. Getting to orbit, which is what SpaceX is doing right now, is just an entire magnitude, many magnitudes more difficult.



FISHER: Now, I should say, Richard Branson does have a sister company, Virgin Orbital, and they have launched two rockets into orbit.

But what we're talking about here is suborbital international tourism. There are about 600 to 700 folks who have made money already to get one of these seats. You know, they say that they are going to be astronauts when they get up in space on this Spaceship 2 aircraft.


FISHER: But, you know, Brian, this is a business. Virgin Galactic is a publicly traded company, and today is also, as exciting as it is and it is about making space life available to the masses, it is also about selling seats and making Virgin Galactic a truly profitable company.

STELTER: Right. Right. And at the spaceport -- at the location, I was talking to a couple people who were there this morning, they were talking about hundreds of people being there, friends, family, students. There are scholarship recipients who are waiting to cheer Branson on.

So as much as this is a commercial, and Virgin Galactic is putting on an expensive commercial today, it's also an inspirational moment, right, for a generation that didn't get to grow up watching NASA space launches. They're instead growing up watching SpaceX and Virgin Galactic launches.

FISHER: Well, Brian, I mean, I'm part of a generation where I grew up in a world where space flight was very routine and commonplace in terms of NASA's space shuttle, right? And after the Apollo program, a lot of folks lost interest because it became so routine. Then you had the space shuttle fleet retire ten years ago this month, and you really saw the economies in cities like Houston and Florida really were hurt by the lack of interest in the space industry.


FISHER: And what we've seen over the last few years with what these billionaire space barons are doing is just truly remarkable and really inspiring another generation. That's actually what Richard Branson said in his mission statement this morning. He said, I'm doing this to bring space travel to my grandchildren, to your grandchildren, to everyone.

STELTER: I was talking over a text with Adam Bayne, who's one of the Virgin Galactic board members, and he said, you now, it's a moment where we feel like everyone is looking up at the heavens. And that's a powerful thing as we wait another, about 15 minutes until the real action happens., right up above you, Kristin, well, 50 miles about.

So, we'll come back to you in a couple minutes as we await the firing of the rocket engine, a liftoff into the actual edge of space.

Let's talk about the billionaires space race in some more details, because as Kristin mentioned, long-time Amazon boss Jeff Bezos is set to make his own flight in just nine days. Branson kind of moved his up early to go ahead of Bezos.

As an editor in "Politico" put it recently, you have to wonder, if in the future, billionaire is taking vanity tour of space while the climate overheats will be one of those moments the historians write about.

There is quite a contrast in the news these days. The need to cover power and influence in this era of extreme wealth and equality is only growing. (INAUDIBLE) called this the billionaires beat and it is very visible right now with Branson halfway to the edge of space and Bezos' getting ready to go.

So, let's talk more about that with some guests we have standing by as we await the rocket launch.

Teddy Schleifer is on the billionaires beat. He used to work here at CNN and Recode. Now he's launching his own media venture. It's called "The Stratosphere."

Nicholas Schmidle is also here, he's the author who spent years inside Branson's space plan (ph), to write his book, "Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut".

So, Nick, this is a moment you've personally been waiting for for several years. What are your impressions of the day thus far?

NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE, AUTHOR, "TEST GODS: VIRGIN GALACTIC AND TEH MAKING OF A MODERN AUSTRONAUT": I mean, I'm watching this sort of simultaneously. I was fortunate enough to be at two of the previous three space launches when they were test launches, part of the test program being conducted about Mohave, California.

You know, it's really exciting. I -- there is more -- there is so much more sort of hullabaloo with this one because Richard Branson is going to be on board. But, yeah, I mean, it's a huge day and it's a day for those inside the company that they've been working for -- I mean, some of them have been working for this for 15 years and Richard has been working for it for 17 years.

So it's a moment of catharsis, but there are -- you know, all the showmanship and all of the production -- high production values we're seeing, you know, doesn't negate the fact this is still a test flight, and I think that's important to keep in mind.

STELTER: There's been this debate and you heard it last hour with Fareed and Neil deGrasse Tyson about real this is, how serious, how much it should count.

Where do you come down on that, Nick, as the author of "Test Gods"?

SCHMIDLE: I think it's -- I mean, in terms of sort of what these guys are doing and is it worthwhile, look, I think that the inspiration, look, seven years of working on this book, four years embedded inside the company and then two and a half years writing it, it changed me. It truly changed me. I -- it forced me to shed some of the cynicism that I sort of -- that came very naturally from someone covering politics.


And it -- you know, it is -- these are people out in the middle of nowhere trying to do something bigger than themselves. And all of the separate stuff about the billionaires, you know, sort of covering billionaires. If you're covering space, the billionaire aspect is sort of incidental because those are the guys that make it all the wackier, because there's foreign billionaire, you know, bankrolling this whole thing.

But like, truly, what's so amazing is that in the middle of nowhere, there are people hand building a spaceship, and that is what would always kind of drove me and kind of kept me coming back for more. And, you know, the distinction that was made earlier, that this is a vehicle flown by pilots. This is in the spirit of, you know, the barnstormers.

Richard Branson is, you know, the silk scarf is flapping in the wind is kind of a real image here, and that's different than the more automated, pre-programmed, you know, in the words of some of the Virgin Galactic pilots, somewhat more sterile environment that, you know, over Blue Origin where you get in, and you press a button, and then you blast up and 11 minutes you're down.


SCHMIDLE: Here, this is an aerospace that's flying to the edge of space.

STELTER: And on the Bezos front, we're going to see that on July 20th, so tune back in for that one later this month.

Bezos stepped down from Amazon. Remember, he was CEO, now he's chairman, so he's giving up the CEO job. Then he announces he's going to space, and then Branson comes along with this earlier date.

So, Teddy, is that the billionaires bet in a nut shell, these guys who can afford to do anything just trying to leapfrog each other?

TEDDY SCHLEIFER, FOUNDING PARTNER, PUCK: I think today is a great example, Brian, of the fact that like the billionaire beat, as it's called, isn't like a luxury beat about the rich and famous doing crazy stuff, right? These are people with enormous influence in society. It's a beat about power, about inequality, about democracy. Like we're sitting here today seeing billionaires blast off into space

and being at the forefront of kind of the American space industry, and these are private citizens who have enormous power, enormous wealth and are able to use it in really fascinating ways.

Now, like I do think it's impossible to talk about the billionaire's success without talking about the system that creates this in the first place. Obviously, you know, two or three weeks ago, Washington and New York and Silicon Valley was consumed with "ProPublica" reporting, the idea that people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk were paying basically nothing sometimes in income tax.

And I want to connect the same facts that make today possible, the same facts that make extraordinary wealth lead to extraordinary space flight, that's a symptom, kind of, of the "ProPublica" story we were talking about a few weeks ago. So, to me, I think the billionaire beat is something that every newsroom should be covering more and more, and today is obviously just as a human being, like, an amazing thing to watch happen.

We have to put it in the broader context here which is the same forces that create the winners of capitalism also create a lot of inequality and how do billionaires take their winnings from capitalism and try to combat inequality, try to do amazing things for humanity. That's the tension that I think newsrooms need to dive into even more.

STELTER: To that point, Nick, do you think Branson is thinking about those factors, thinking about extreme inequality? Is he thinking about how this looks, that billionaires are trying to leave the planet when the globe is getting hotter and the people are getting more and more (INAUDIBLE)? Like do you think he's aware of that, or is this all good PR for him?

SCHMIDLE: I think that it's all good PR for him, but I think that he is -- he is -- rhetorically he's aware of it. And he -- you know, this whole -- this whole model you keep coming back about democratizing space.

These are 600 people that have already paid for seats. That right now the spaceship is only taking about four people -- I mean, it has -- originally, it was designed for four passengers and six pilots, now there are seats for four passengers and two pilots.

So, that's a lot of flights to get through before you clear the 600 reservations. And then, you know, the suppositions that they're going to open up reservations after this today and you're going to get another flood of people.

So, we're talking a long time in the future before, you know, a ticket price is less than a business class ticket, you know, $10,000 one way across the Atlantic. I mean, that's a ways, ways, ways off. And no one is -- very few people are paying for business class tickets across the Atlantic. So I think that is a reality that we need to sort of keep in mind.

I mean, look, I think that Branson is aware of that. He's not totally tone deaf to it, but I don't know -- I think that his -- you know, look, there is very much -- there is a field of dreams here mentality, and once you get the company going, all the rest will sort of flow from that.

If you look at the Spaceport America in New Mexico, I mean, that thing has been built for a decade and has just been sitting there. It's an incredible thing. I was out there five years ago.

They were sort of, quote/unquote, testing the air space. I went out with pilots and engineers and they just sort of flew around and it's near all these missile sites and they want us to see what was going on. At that point, I mean, it was kind of creepy. It almost looks like the millennium falcon had crashed into the desert and somebody had just left it there.

And so, yeah, I mean, it's the whole -- what is so remarkable about this story is just all of the blood, sweat and tears. I mean, you got three engineers that were killed in 2007, you had a test pilot killed in 2014, you've had countless employees come for three or four years thinking they were going to realize this dream and then have to give it up because of divorce or whatever.

I mean, it's been really -- I mean, it's been a test -- a test of wills. I think that in some way is why today is so cathartic as well.

STELTER: Nick, why weren't you there? Did the Galactic folks not like your book? Was it not positive enough?

SCHMIDLE: Yeah, that's a question you would have to ask them. I saw today that there two busloads of reporters being brought to the site. I was -- for years, I was the only reporter there. I know that -- first I wrote this long piece for "The New Yorker" in 2018 based on the time I was embedded with them.

And then I knew some people thought I made the program sound dangerous, which is what was conveyed to me.

STELTER: But isn't space inherently -- inherently dangerous? Before you answer, we're going to put back up on screen the images we do have. We're getting a couple of short snippets from Virgin Galactic. You can see from just a couple of moments ago, you see the mothership going into the air, getting as high as it's going to get, you know, 45,000, 50,000 feet. So, they're essentially, as you were saying, they're on a transatlantic flight at this point.

And in a couple minutes, we're going to see that key moment with the rocket. But to that point, Nick, space is inherently dangerous. Everybody is hoping for the best, and no reason to expect anything else, but it is inherently dangerous.

SCHMIDLE: Yeah. I mean, so what happened is I came in, and, you know, to me this is an adventure story, right? That's the way that I always kind of thought about it and saw it framed. And they as we also can see from this webcast, they're very PR savvy. And to have someone inside the company and their inability to control that message, I think, you know, ultimately is what -- is why they're no longer talking to me and why I'm not there now.

But as for the particular reason you'd have to ask them, but yeah, it's unfortunate because I do think, I have a --

STELTER: The book is really interesting. It's called "Test Gods" and I recommended it.

Last thought to you, Teddy, last thought for you before we cut away to see hopefully the moment. Last thought to you, Teddy.

SCHLEIFER: I'm just struck by the fact that -- the book is a great example of reporters need to be in these companies much more aggressively than we ever have before. I often find that on sort of the billionaire influence beat, lots of these people don't really want scrutiny.

They might say high-minded things about come on in, turn over every rock you can, but I often find people kind of cling to the idea of, oh, this is a private life, this is a private company, this is my family office, how dare you ask questions about my philanthropy. I heard this stuff all the time.

I think it's important for, you know, listeners and viewers to think about the idea that, you know, a long time ago, it was Neil Armstrong going into space. And it was this public, project for humanity, right, as Jeff Bezos says.

And now, we have private citizens leading sort of public life. And that's -- it requires more and more scrutiny than we've ever given it before. Obviously, wealth and equality has winners and losers, and I think the job of the media and the job of journalists is to scrutinize whether nor the system is working.


SCHLEIFER: And you can only really do that if you scrutinize the billionaires as a class. That doesn't mean, you know, class warfare, tax the rich. That doesn't necessarily mean scrutinize in a negative sense, but I do think that a lot of media outlets have missed the story of our time which is the gilded age that we haven't really seen since the original gilded age isn't even covered like a gilded age.

It's sort of only been covered as amazing people doing amazing things without wrapping our hands around kind of the larger economy that produces people like Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos but also produces record inequality. And I want to make sure we're always thinking about the broader picture.

STELTER: And I think what you said, I think that's changing. I think we are seeing tougher coverage. Look at the new book about Facebook and Zuckerberg coming on Tuesday.



STELTER: We are seeing more interesting in the billionaires beat and that's a good thing.

Teddy and Nick, thank you both.

Let me give you an update on where we stand at 11:19 Eastern, 9:19 in the desert of New Mexico, about five to six minutes before the real action aboard Unity 22, that's when the mothership is going to let go of the actual space plane carrying Richard Branson and his fellow passengers.

Let's go to Rachel Crane, CNN's space and innovation correspondent, who has been covering this beat for years and knows it better than anybody.

Rachel, you've been waiting there and looking to the sky. At this point there's nothing for us to see. We do hope we're going to have live pictures in a couple of minutes, however.

Can you talk us through the next five minutes and what actually happens?

RACHEL CRANE, CNN SPACE AND INNOVATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brian, I just want you to know that here on the ground at Spaceport America, we actually just got live images of Branson inside the cabin, along with his fellow mission specialists., which was incredible to see seeing him, you know, VSS Unity about to make this historic blastoff for him and his crew.

So, really, as you said, I've been following this for years, so seeing live images of him making this flight, two decades in the making for him and his team. I mean, truly incredible, I hope that you guys get those -- get those soon. But as I said, you were able to see both a very close-up image of his face as well as a wider cabin view of the other additional three mission specialists that are on board.

But I want to remind our audience of where we are in this flight profile. Right now, Mothership Eve and VSS Unity are mated. They are about 40,000 feet above the ground here at Spaceport America. We've actually able to see the vehicle circle above us. It's incredible to see people staring up into the heavens and actually seeing this thing above -- it's really, really -- you know, as I said, it gives me goosebumps, seeing it take off, seeing it circle above us.

You know, we're just a few minutes away from that critical moment when VSS Unity will be released from Mothership Eve and it will be in freefall for a few seconds. And that's when the rocket motor will ignite, blasting this spaceship up to the very edge of space and the passengers will experience about 3Gs of air. We're getting a different image of Richard Branson inside VSS Unity.

So, they will experience about 3Gs, that rocket burn will happen for about 60 seconds, and that's when the spaceship will finally touch the edge of space. So, it will pass about 50 miles above the Earth. That here in the U.S. is deemed the board of space by NASA, FAA, the Air Force.

Of course, it is not the Karman Line. There's been a lot of discussion about that, whether this is really space or not. Blue Origin, as you heard, so past that Karman Line, it's 62 miles above Earth. But here in the U.S., NASA, the FAA, Air Force designate that the passengers on board will in fact become passengers.

But, Brian, we are like less than two minutes away from this incredible release, so we are all incredibly excited here on the ground. But it's important for our viewers to remember that this is not commercial operations. Virgin Galactic saying they won't start those until the start of '22. What we're viewing right now is a test flight.

Richard Branson is actually a mission specialist in board. He's objective is to test the astronaut experience. So, he's actually been taking notes through the training. I'm sure he's, you know, trying to absorb as much as he possibly can on this flight, but also mentally taking notes on what he wants the passenger experience to be like for those some 600 customers who have paid nearly $200,000 a ticket.

I think we can actually -- do we still see it, you guys, above us?

STELTER: These are all live pictures now, Rachel, on the screen, and if you look at the top right corner of the screen, you'll see T minus 58 seconds, you'll see at an altitude of 46,000 feet. We're seeing some shots of Branson and then this shot from the ground of the mothership, and we're about to see the space plane take off.

So, Rachel, 40 seconds to go. They are now pretty confident they can actually launch and they can move to this key moment. You said that for a few seconds, this plane is going to be in freefall, right?

CRANE: That's right, Brian. And that is that moment when everyone sort of holds their breath. Is this rocket going to ignite? Is this thing going to touch the edge of space?

I want to point out that because this is a test flight, all the passengers are board, they are wearing parachutes. They also have additional oxygen on board if necessary. You see that the pilots are wearing oxygen masks. The passengers, though, they are not.

We're about 10 seconds away from release right here on the ground at Spaceport America. You can hear the crowd cheering behind me. This is that historic moment that Richard Branson and his team at Virgin Galactic have been waiting for for nearly two decades and we have release, Brian, we have release.

The rocket engine has ignited. This is the moment that Branson and his team have been waiting for -- Brian, I've got to pause.


I got to take this in. This is really an incredible moment here. This is what Branson and his team --

STELTER: Viewers, what you're watching around the world, trust me. You're going to see it in a moment. Rachel is a few seconds ahead of the stream that you're seeing on your television. So, Rachel is telling us on the ground she knows that Unity 22 has successfully fired its rocket.

So, Rachel, what's next?

CRANE: Brian, I apologize for that delay, but we are 45 seconds into this burn. This rocket motor should be burning for about 60 seconds. That will catapult them to the edge of space. We're really looking for that 60-second burn on the ground. We're about 3 seconds away from it. That's when we know they're headed to the edge of space when Branson will indeed be getting his astronaut wings.

As you have heard from the crowd behind me, the hit that moment, they are coasting to the edge of space here. There, I'm sorry, trying to listen --

STELTER: And viewers on your television, you're actually able to see what Rachel described a moment ago where you see the rocket burn actually happening.

Kristin Fisher, what does this moment feel like to you on the ground there as well?

FISHER: Unbelievably exciting. Brian, we can actually see Spaceship 2 rocketing up into space right now. We can see the moment when Spaceship 2 released from the mothership. You could see the smoke, the contrails from the ground as it rocketed up.

Everyone on the ground here cheering, and now this spaceship is in the very capable hands of the two pilots on board this flight, Dave McKay, Michael Masuki. This is what they trained their entire lives for. These are two very highly trained test pilots.

They've been with Virgin Galactic for quite some time, and now they are responsible for the company's founder, Richard Branson, achieving his life long dream of reaching space.

And Richard Branson becoming the first of the billionaire space barons to make it into space on a ship that he founded and helped develop. You just -- gosh, you just have to wonder how exciting he must be feeling right now as he approaches those few moments of weightlessness. After that, we're hoping --

STELTER: They are traveling now at mach 3, Kristin, more than 2,000 miles per hour. Put that into perspective for us.

FISHER: Well, the amount of G-forces that they must feel as they are skyrocketing up. I mean, you saw that moment of freefall and the second that rocket engine ignites. Those astronauts are thrown back into their seat, pushed back, and then as it rockets up vertically into space, they are literally pressed down with all of those G- forces.

And when you hear about these astronauts or soon-to-be astronauts, I should say, but when you hear about how this crew was training, that's what they were talking about. They were doing all those trainings to get their bodies used to what it feels like with those G-forces. They were also getting used to what it feels like when you actually get those few minutes of weightlessness, by traveling in the vomit comet, as they call it, those big up and down curves, and you get to experience just a few seconds of weightlessness.

And now, I believe my -- what I am seeing is a little bit ahead of what you guys are seeing, but we did get a glimpse into -- inside Spaceship 2 and maybe you guys will see it in just a few more minutes.

STELTER: So, that's coming in a moment. But we know the speed is slowing down dramatically now. Now down to this mach 1.

Rachel, what does it feel like? Is it like a roller coaster where you have that momentary sensation of weightlessness but you're feeling it for several minutes?

CRANE: That's exactly it, Brian. That's what they described it as, that moment you get to the very top of the roller coaster and just coming off the edge when your stomach drops and you're kind of floating there for a minute. It's like that but for a prolonged period of time.

And we just saw here on the ground at Spaceport America, a brief glimpse of Richard Branson and his fellow mission specialists floating in micro gravity inside VSS Unity, earning those astronaut wings, and here on the ground, there's been tons of cheers here. They just announced that today space is Virgin territory.

So the team here at Virgin Galactic incredibly proud of what they have pulled off. You know, they have been talking about Richard's flight, Richard's flight, Richard's flight for nearly two decades since they bought the technology of Spaceship 1 from the Ansari X Prize back in 2004. This is a long time in the making and I can't wait to speak to Sir Richard Branson when he lands from had historic flight and hear what he has to say -- Brian.

STELTER: Retired NASA astronaut Daniel Tani also with us.

Daniel, describe the sensation that they're going through right now.

DANIEL TANI, RETIRED NASA ASTRONAUT: Well, boy, my first moments of zero G are just -- you know, it's locked in my head.


It's just fantastic. In my case on the shuttle, we were strapped in pretty hard. So, when you're strapped in, you don't really feel you're not like thrown out of your seat. But you see things, you hold up your pencil or your book and you let go and it floats there. So for me visually, it was the first thing but then getting out of the seat and floating around just spectacular sensation.

STELTER: And now that the plane is speeding back up 17 -- 1700 miles per hour. So what's happening? Are they coming out of weightlessness? They're now heading actually quite quickly back to Earth. They're now at 99 -- you know, and so they're now that the, the period of weightlessness is now over. Tell us what's going to happen next, Daniel. TANI: Well, it's not clear it's over. So, what's happening is they're there they were, they were flown, thrown up, and then they and the airplane are falling down to earth at the same time. So they're going to be picking up speed as they fall down to the earth, but inside the airplane, that's, that's them floating inside the spaceship.

So, so it is picking up velocity, but inside you're still floating relative to this the spaceship. So, that's the zero-G feeling that you get, once they come back into the atmosphere and engage all the aero surfaces so they can start slowing down and making their way back to the runway. That's when they'll pick up the Gs and, and that that zero G time will be over for them.

STELTER: All right, Daniel, stay with us. CNN Aerospace Analyst Miles O'Brien also with us. Miles, viewers know you've been covering the space programs, plural, for decades. What feels different about this one to you, Miles?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AEROSPACE ANALYST: Well, Brian, it takes me back to 2004 when we watched Spaceship One fly three times that year, eventually winning the Ansari-X Prize. And at that time, we thought, oh, this is going to be widely adopted for a lot of people within five years. Here we are 17 years later, and this is finally happening. Space is hard. Some people died along the way.

And the question we have to all ask ourselves is, is this worth it? And it's hard to know. We know this is a pivotal moment, when people suddenly have the sense that they can be a part of space. I remember, being in the hangar in Mojave, California after the X-Prize was won by that team and being with the pilot and the spacecraft just a short time after they flew.

And it was felt very accessible to me, and I think that's an important thing to take away here is that this makes space incrementally a little more accessible, you know. And so, it's billionaires now. Who else is going to do it? NASA was never going to do this for us. So, let's let the billionaire spend their money, have a little fun.

And as time goes on, and we do this more, we hope the price will go down. You know, from -- we went from the Ford tri-motor in the 20s to you know Airbus A=-380s, and we all fly all over the world. Let's hope that that's the course we're headed on and, and you and I, Brian, will get a chance to fly.

STELTER: Miles, you first, you first, you've earned it with their decades of educating all the rest of us about not just this world, but out of this world. Back to Rachel Crane on the ground, Rachel is what we're now seeing the feathering system where this space planes raising its wings. It's reorienting and now falling back to Earth to prepare to land, is that right?

RACHEL CRANE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Brian. And you know, here on the ground at Spaceport America, we actually just heard the sonic booms of re-entry, which is you know, we didn't know we were going to hear that. So, that was quite amazing. That was something that the crowd that you started hearing about. Now, we did just see the emergency response vehicles head out. Oh,

we're hearing Richard right now on the ground here at spaceport America. I know you guys have the delay, but we're hearing, he's speaking to us right now. Can't quite make out what he's saying?

Though he's got strapped into his seat. I'm sure he's speaking about the experience, cannot wait to hear what he has to say. But really, once we saw him strap himself into the seat, he was grabbing his fellow mission specialists they were clearly taking in this moment.

Clearly, this is it. As we've been speaking that this is two decades in the making for him and his team. So, you know, this was a very historic, meaningful moment to Richard Branson. As I said, we just heard from him, we see him and as Mission Specialists back in their seats, they're starting re-entry.

And, you know, we know that there was a weather delay here at Spaceport America for this launch this morning. That was because of the winds. But another important thing to remember is that this is a glider when it's coming back in. So, that's why that wind speed is also so important.

The weather specifications for this kind of launch are not nearly as stringent as the ones for you know, those the crewed ISS missions that we that we, that we see from SpaceX recently. But you know, there still are weather specifications and visibility because as I said, this is a glider so they want to have very clear visibility and very low winds and there's not a cloud in the sky right now.

STELTER: Hey, Rachel, standby. I think we can now hear Branson speaking.


RICHARD BRANDSON, BUSINESS MAGNATE: -- The complete experience of a lifetime. And now I'm looking down, a beautiful (INAUDIBLE). Congratulations to everybody for creating such a beautiful, beautiful place. Congratulations to all our wonderful team, (INAUDIBLE) Galactic for 17 years of hard, hard work to get at this part.



STELTER: Live feed from onboard the VSS Unity, Richard Branson in that wide shot, you can see he's on there with the other passengers. So, as they are now gliding back down to earth, what a beautiful morning in New Mexico. Kristen Fisher, you're near Truth or Consequences? Now, that town wasn't always named, that was named in the 1950s as part of a P.R. stunt by a radio station.

And I can't help but think that here we are, 70 years later, this is on one level a giant PR stunt. It is also inspiring to countless millions who are watching around the world. Are you able to see the glider the plane gliding back down right now? Kristen? FISHER: I cannot see it just yet, but I sure heard that sonic, sonic boom. And you know, Brian, you're right. This is a publicity stunt. But it's also inspiring. I mean, you can have both of those same things, those things happening at the same time. And, and there's nothing wrong with that.

I mean, this is this new era of spaceflight. This is commercial spaceflight, the privatization and democratization, hopefully, of spaceflight. And, you know, a lot of people maybe aren't so thrilled that they're all these billionaires in space are about to be not one but perhaps two billionaires in space, a lot of folks aren't thrilled that there's going to be a lot of branding in space, right?

There's -- we saw Land Rovers out here this morning. But brands in space, this is a critical part of this new era of space travel because in order to make spaceflight more accessible, and more affordable, you have to have things like this happen. And so, let's just take a moment we're looking in the sky right now to see if we can see it.

I can see there it is Spaceship Two, and the mothership right overhead gliding in for an absolutely beautiful re-entry. And it appears that that re-entry, it is directly overhead of me right now, and it appears that that feathering the re-entry feathering system that caused that 2014 accident deadly accident, working just beautifully. No problems here today, at least from what I can tell.

And so now, it's going to be descending in a spiral motion really acting as a glider as Spaceship Two makes its way right back landing on the runway that it took off from, from Spaceport America. And so, Brian, I mean, what a name for this place, Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

And the entire state of New Mexico is really hoping that this marks the beginning of a new era of space tourism brings in tons of business for this very remote and desolate stretch of desert, the Mojave Desert here in New Mexico. And so, any minute now, we should see Spaceship Two landing on this runway and Richard Branson now officially an astronaut, according to the U.S. government, the FAA and the U.S. military.

I understand the Karman line. A lot of other countries say that he did not quite make it, but hey, he was weightless, and the U.S. government recognizes him as an astronaut, and all the other members of his crew. And so, they're going to land I would imagine Richard Branson style, there's probably going to be some popping of champagne. There's going to be a concert, some music, and then these new astronauts are going to get their wings.

STELTER: Both your parents were astronauts, Kristin. My, my grandfather was a, was a NASA staffer during Apollo. And I just keep wondering, what would he make of this today? If he were here today to see these billionaires racing into space. It's the start of a remarkable new age. And we can debate the pros and cons. But it is now happening. It's now here. And you can see this plane about to come back down on the same runway where the mothership took off exactly an hour ago. So, Rachel, 60 minutes up to the edge of space and back. Not too shabby.

CRANE: Hey, Brian, I got to tell you right here at Spaceport America, I can confirm that VSS Unity has safely landed on the runway here. We're getting live in images from Richard Branson. He is clapping. So, you can hear the crowd behind me cheering. VSS Unity, once again, Brian has safely landed here on that 12,000 foot runway at Spaceport America.

Richard Branson has fulfilled his lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut. Richard Branson has long said that he was inspired by the Apollo missions, and he has wanted to be an astronaut for his entire life. Well, today is the day that he, along with his team, have a treat achieved that dream.

They are hoping that this is a major step forward in a democratizing space, opening that final frontier to the rest of us. Of course, right now we know that those tickets are going for around $200,000 a seat but this moment they, you know, I it's hard to over emphasize for the team here at Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America and really for New Mexico what this moment means.


Once again you can hear the cure is behind me, which really just hammers home how significant this moment is for the team. We know that Richard Branson upon landing is planning to make a major announcement that he's been teasing, and of course, Brian in typical Richard Branson fashion, he will be making a huge spectacle about this very successful flight that he has just embarked on, he and his team, and his fellow Mission Specialists.

So, we know that there's going to be a live musical performance, but we are all eagerly awaiting to hear what this experience like was for Richard. You know, he's, we've always heard from people that have traveled to space, how it fundamentally changes and that's something that Branson has, you know, sad is the motivating factor behind him and his team, getting people to, to space so they can be fundamentally impacted by seeing, you know, the curvature of the earth and really get a sense of that we are all one on mothership or becoming, you know, environmentalist and, and understanding the fragility of our planet.

And of course, there's no moment in time more important for that, to really be absorbed by everybody around the globe than this moment with what we're seeing with global warming, climate change, or what have you. Of course, Richard Branson is a big environmentalist. So, you know, as I said, Brian, it's really hard to overemphasize what this moment means to Branson, his team, his friends, his family, also space enthusiasts around the world. And also here for space reporters, like myself.

I mean, we've been following this since its infancy, so to really absorb that this has just happened and there was no mishaps that we know of from, from our perspective, it went off without a hitch, and Richard Branson will soon be awarded his astronaut limbs along with two of his fellow Mission Specialists. I mean, really, it's a moment that gives you goosebumps, it's a

moment, Brian, as a reporter, you know, we all have those moments that we that we put in the memory book forever, that we know we're never going to forget, we're going to hold on to for the rest of our lives. I got to tell you, this is one of those for me

STELTER: Absolutely, and I know your kids are watching, my kids are watching, Kristin's kids are watching, and they're going to grow up in a world where this is pretty normal. The headline right now is: A space plane has just landed safely at spaceport America, carrying Richard Branson, who has been wanting to do this for two decades.

But Rachel but the notion of a space plane, a spaceport, all this language, this is going to become common language, I think probably sooner rather than later. Is that fair to say?

CRANE: That's right. And you know, I also want to point out, you talked about space plane, but that's this is, this, of course is a you know, rocket powered space plane that Branson and his team have built. That's their vehicle. That's their system. It's mated with the mothership, Eve.

But Jeff Bezos, his system is much more of what the typical, you know, spacecraft rocket system that people think of looks like. It's an automated space capsule. It's not, it does not look like an airplane like the like the way that you know, most people might view this vehicle and see oh, it just looks like an airplane. It looks familiar looks like the shuttles did.

But Blue Origin system is a space capsule. It's fully automated. But as we know today's flight was piloted, two pilots were on this. This was the fourth space flight for Virgin Galactic. They've had many other piloted flights. But none of them you know, they were the gliders, they were the mothership.

Of course, this is still in its test phases. So, I want to point out that all of the passengers on board, they were all wearing parachutes and the options that there was an anomaly. As well as there was supplemental oxygen on board. I told you earlier that we saw some of the emergency response vehicles driving out to the runway, of course, those were all just precautions that were taken, because this is still a test flight.

Virgin Galactic saying that there will be two additional test flights before they begin their commercial operations in the beginning of 2022. But as you just pointed out, Brian, I mean, our children will grow up in a world where space travel is, you know, normal, where their next door neighbor may have gone up to space and have their astronaut wings.

So, I mean, this is really the dawn of a new era of space exploration and space travel. That's what you know, so many of us have been waiting for that final frontier to be opened for the rest of us. So, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and others have been working diligently on opening the heavens for us. And right now, as we know, it costs a pretty penny to get there. But of course, those early adopters, they're willing to throw it on

the big bucks so that you know the market can drive the cost in the right direction for the rest of us so we can all experience what Richard Branson just got to experience. I mean, weightlessness, he's getting his astronaut wings. I can't wait to hopefully, one day, get mine. Brian.

STELTER: Hopefully, not too long from now. And Rachel, we're going to see Branson, and we're going to see the, the other passengers shortly as they disembark. But now, they're back on the ground. Let's talk a little bit more about what this means. Kristin Fisher back over to you.

This is the first moment that a guy who has bought his own spaceship has then phone his own spaceship right? I mean, that that what makes this a mile marker is he wanted to do this, he had the funds, he raised money from others. Now he's gone to space on his own spaceship. So, that's the mile marker today, right?


FISHER: Correct. That is the historic first today. And making it even more historic is the fact that in just a few days from now, on July 20th, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in just a few days from now, that's going to happen again, most likely with Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin spacecraft. And so, the fact that you had this, just scarcity of space flights, human spaceflight, over the last decade, to now have these two billionaires doing it, within less, less than two weeks of one another is just so remarkable.

And I know some people are just tired of hearing about these billionaires, these rich people just, they love their rockets, they love going into space, they're tired of the billionaires in space. But you know, I just can't stress this enough, this is ultimately about opening up space to everyone.

And one of the things that I'm really looking forward to hearing is how Richard Branson and his fellow crewmates, how they describe what they experienced those minutes of weightlessness, and seeing the earth because every astronaut that comes back talks about what a transformative moment it is in their life, how it makes them a better human, a better Earthling.

It makes them care about their planet more, it makes them perhaps understand their, their place in the universe a bit better. And so when you have somebody like Richard Branson, the consummate showman, a daredevil who's been doing publicity stunts, if you want to call this stunt, or test flights, like this for many, many decades involved with many of his businesses.

I'm very curious to see how he describes what he just experienced. And not just him, but the others that are going to be getting their wings at this ceremony in just a few minutes, Brian.

STELTER: Absolutely. All right, bouncing back and forth here, Kristen and Rachel both on the ground in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, as this successful flight has now ended, and we're racking the tape to show you the moment of landing. We're also going to show you again, the moment where the rocket really lifted off and where Branson and company actually reached the edge of space.

It also speaks to the technology and how there still needs to be more development, that this was not always entirely alive. The pictures were not always available. There's still more work to do for virgin than company and for its rivals, but it's amazing to have witnessed it here in near real time. So, Rachel, who is there at the spaceport. We see hundreds of people behind you. Who are they and what's about to happen next?

CRANE: Well, Brian, before I get to that, I just want to point out that here at Spaceport America, we're just got some live images of Richard and the Mission Specialist on the ground. We saw pilot Dave McKay hugging Beck Moses, one of the Mission Specialists on board. Richard was still strapped into a seat as were two other Mission Specialists, but we know we're getting, they're getting ready to board the plane.

But here at Spaceport America, as we pointed out, there's a lot of VIPs in the audience and notably, Elon Musk is in attendance here at spaceport America to witness Branson take this historic flight. And you know, that's, that's of note because people have often pegged Branson, Musk, Bezos, all against one another.

But Musk's appearance here at Spaceport, America highlights also that yes, there's a competitive spirit amongst, amongst them, which also helps drive the innovation and it helps to motivate the teams here, but it's also there.

They're all playing in the sandbox together and a win here today for Branson and his team is a win for the entire aerospace community. Musk and Branson have known each other for quite some time, and Branson tweeted back at musk saying thank you for being you've always been such a supportive friend. So you know, it really just shows that yes, there is a competitive spirit and what Galactic and SpaceX are doing are quite different.

You know, SpaceX is focused on deep space missions, getting to the moon to Mars to orbital missions, but galactic is focused on today what they demonstrated was a suborbital mission. So, they did not go into orbit. They are, you know, only went about 50, a little over 50 miles above Earth, but they're all they are, as I said, a win here today for Virgin Galactic is a win for the entire space community because it's all about democratizing space, you know, opening up the heavens for the rest of us, and according to Musk, hopefully one day becoming a multi-planetary species.

Now, we know here on the ground. Branson is set to make an announcement once he deboards VSS Unity. What that announcement is we're all hotly anticipating it. There's also going to be musical performance by Khalid, and there will be a press conference where hopefully we will hear what this experience was like for Branson, you know nearly two decades in the making. He's poured over a billion dollars into this endeavor. He's wanted to

go to space, he's dreamed of going to space since he was a child. So we are all very eager to hear what the experience actually was like for him. Also, hopefully, we'll get more images of him inside that cabin. Also, Brian, I want to point out that at one moment, we, it looks like Branson was almost trying to make a phone call while he was on board VSS Unity.

STELTER: I saw that.

CRANE: -- what was going on there. Yes. Who was he calling? I want to know. So, you know, maybe hopefully, we'll get some get some answers to that question, and many more, Brian, but certainly, the energy here on the ground -- sorry, go ahead.


STELTER: To your point about a goal, you know, you've been wanting to do this for decades. He set out this company almost 20 years ago, I just wrote down, what's my 20-year goal? It's a good idea for everybody to think about. What are you going to be doing in 20 years?

Rachel, let's see if we can zoom out and just show the scene where you are. Because you're right at the physical spaceport building. So, it'd be nice to show what it looks like there. There's, there's these risers with other reporters, but behind you, that's where these VIPs are, right?

CRANE: That's where all the VIPs are. That's where all the Virgin Galactic employees who've worked so hard to pull this off, are standing. So closest to us, that's actually where a lot of the Virgin Galactic employees are standing. But beyond that, right in front of the hangar, those beautiful windows that you see, that's where all those VIPs are.

That's where Branson's family is. That's also where Branson walked out before he boarded the vehicles that took them out to the runway before he boarded VSS Unity. So, that's the hangar also, where all the training leading up to today took place. You know, he's been here on the ground in New Mexico for several days working towards the space flight that he was able to take today.

And that training is a big part of the astronauts experience, you know, that was Branson's mission objective here, you know, he was a mission specialist on this test flight. And so he was here to test the astronauts experience and that experience starts, of course, before they take flight, it's all about that training. And typical in Virgin style, they clearly doing it in style, Bryan.

STELTER: Yes, they are. Rachel, thank you. The banner on screen. Richard Branson spaceflight dream becomes reality. Back to Miles O'Brien, CNN Aerospace Analyst. Miles, here's another headline for you. On Friday in Death Valley, California was 130 degrees, the highest temperature ever, Saturday, same thing today, it might again set a record for the highest temperature on the planet. Is it moral, is it ethical to be launching rockets and fine off to space and spending all this money and burn all this fuel in an age of climate crisis?

O'BRIEN: Well, I don't think it's mutually exclusive, Brian. I think we can afford to continue to push our frontier. But we still have to fix our own spaceship here first. And, and concurrently, it's important to think about space, potentially down the road here, as a place for natural resources for us; you can generate solar power in space and bring it back to the earth.

There are big asteroids floating out there with huge amounts of natural resources on them, which could be mined. And ultimately, let's face it, that the human race, eventually earth and the solar system is going to end. The idea of extending humanity beyond our solar system someday is, is -- sounds like science fiction. But if we don't continue these incremental steps now, we're never going to get there. You know, maybe someday we will be the UAPs or the UFOs for some other planet, some distant planet beyond. I know that sounds fanciful crazy --

STELTER: You just blew my mind, Miles, I love that. You're saying we're going to be the UFO someday?

O'BRIEN: Well, if we don't keep going into space, now, we never will be that UFO, right? So, and we never will continue the human race beyond Earth and beyond the solar system, which we're talking billions of years off, but if we're going to make it, if we're going to thread the needle right now, and we're in a crisis, where we face extinction much sooner.

We need to think in both fields right now. We need to think about taking care of our own planet, but also continuing that push toward exploration. If nothing else, it validates what we are as humans.

STELTER: Yes, it does. Stay with me miles. Let's go back to Retired NASA astronaut Daniel Tawny as well. Daniel, what do you think? Are we going to be the UFO someday, is Branson getting us closer to it.?

TANI: I think, well, eventually if we're interplanetary, that would be fantastic. If, if we're seeing that way, just for what an exciting day what, what a fantastic launch day for me is always a really special day. But when I was launching in space then also when I was launching rockets, and in my days before being an astronaut, we actually used to launch rockets off an airplane just like, just like spaceship did today. And so I had all this excitement all the, the thrill and the adrenaline is all coming back. It's just a fantastic day.


STELTER: I love to hear it. Let me bring back Nicholas Schmidle as well, the author of "Test Gods," that's the definitive book about Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson. Nick, you with me still?

SCHMIDLE: I'm here, I'm here. What do you think is going through Branson's mind? What does this mean for him as this, you know, billionaire centric adventurer who has been trying to do this for decades. SCMIDLE: I mean, it's, it's a huge vindication. I mean, I -- totally hats off, because here's, here's the context, like Richard Branson, despite all of his success has never really built anything. You know, he was always, he's a, he's a master brands man. And the challenge always with Virgin Galactic was suddenly he was building something, and it wasn't just something it wasn't just that he was building, you know, widgets, he was trying to put together a spaceship.

He's trying to put together a spaceship company. And so, the fact that and for me, you know, spending so much time inside the project, inside the program, it was always a kind of, you know, is this a, is this going to be a cautionary tale? Or is this going to be a sort of a triumph against all odds kind of story? And for Richard to have gotten there and to have completed this flight today?

You know, it's, it's an against all odds sort of story. Now, the question, the next question is, OK, can they scale this? And can they make this a viable business? And I think that's a whole other sort of can of worms. But, but was he able to sort of realize this, this this personal dream? Yes. I mean, it's, it's a huge day for him. And I'm sure he feels massively vindicated.

STELTER: What will he need to do next, to make this a business?

SCHMIDLE: They've got it, they've got to do this repeatedly. Always the challenge -- look, so space -- you know, we've talked about spaceship one a little bit. 2004, you know, there's a spaceship that Spaceship Two is based on that flew to space three times in the summer and the fall of 2004.

And the idea was always you would take spaceship two, and you would make it a little bit bigger and a little more powerful, and you'd be up there, you'd be doing the same thing. What they found is that building a prototype is one thing, building a vehicle that can do this on a on a weekly basis, even a, you know, doing making three flights a week, which is what they're talking about for the, for the tempo of their program.

So, can they do that? And can they do this in a way that shaves away -- it sort of, you know, undermines this three percent fatality rate that has, that has that that human spaceflight as they've been affected by human spaceflight. And so three percent is, you know, if every 100 people that go out three people die, that is, look, there's a lot of informed consent that's going on in terms of the, in terms of assuming liability, but that's a question that I feel like future astronauts will have to reckon with. And Virgin Galactic needs to, they want to cut that number way, way down. And the question is, can they?

STELTER: Can they? Miles over to you, Rachel Crane is going to be interviewing Branson later today. Branson is going to have a press conference. What do you want to know, Miles, from Richard Branson today?

O'BRIEN: I want to know what that experience was like for him. You know, one of the things that occurs to me is there's so much to take in, in so little time, it's just a few minutes of free fall, essentially. And you've got the, the curvature of the earth, the bright, brilliant colors that you see from space, the darkness of the sky, and the idea that you're tumbling around in zero G probably not feeling great, because you probably got some inner ear disturbances. Space adaptation, sickness is a real thing. So, I'd like to know what that experience was and how much he was able to process through it.

STELTER: And there we see Miles on the screen, I'm not sure you can see it, the viewers can see the split in the space plane. Now coming down this incredibly long runway, a runway fit for space travel, in this remote New Mexico desert. This is the end of one story for Richard Branson, and the beginning of another and not just for Branson, but for the passengers on board as well.

But I love your point miles about how it lasts for a few minutes. You want to take it all in? And are you able to and are you able to really process it. And at least I'll have the live video of the middle of the video memories. Miles, thank you so much for joining us for this. Daniel Tani, thank you as well. This as Richard Branson said as he was coming back down to earth a few minutes ago.

He said it's the experience of a lifetime. That was his initial comment. As you can kind of hear him speaking from onboard his space plane. He was calling it the experience of a lifetime. What we're witnessing is a race to the edge of space for all of humankind. A remarkable Sunday morning in New Mexico and for all of us to share around the world.


Jake Tapper continues our live coverage.