NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson on Monday after traveling to the edge of space as a passenger on his company’s VSS Unity spacecraft.
“We put Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom in sub-orbit 60 years ago, and now we’ve come to this, and I think it’s great,” said Nelson, who has been to space in the 1980s, in an interview on “Squawk Box.”
Branson’s flight was a milestone nearly two decades after the billionaire businessman launched his space tourism business in 2004. VSS Unity reached an altitude of 86.1 kilometers on Sunday, which equates to at 53.5 miles or approximately 282,000 feet. It took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico and then landed at the facility.
Branson’s closely watched flight made him the first of the creators of the billionaire space company to fly his own spacecraft, ahead of Jeff Bezos, who started Blue Origin, and Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX.
Bezos, the founder and executive chairman of Amazon and the richest person in the world, is due to travel to space a week from Tuesday aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are more direct rivals, competing in what is known as suborbital space tourism. SpaceX makes longer trips in orbit and has transported astronauts to the International Space Station.
Musk has a ticket for a future flight on a Virgin Galactic trip.
Billionaire Richard Branson reacts aboard the Virgin Galactic VSS Unity passenger rocket plane after reaching the edge of space above Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, USA, on July 11, 2021 in a still image from a video.
Galactic Virgo | via Reuters
“I think what these billionaires are doing is awesome, and I think what Elon Musk did, go into orbit with astronaut crews, I think that’s awesome,” Nelson said, describing all of the efforts to venture beyond the face of the earth in philosophical language.
He also fended off criticism that it’s not worth it. “We never want to lose our character as explorers, adventurers,” said Nelson, a former Democratic US senator from Florida who officially took over as head of NASA in May.
Nelson is also a former astronaut. In 1986, while a member of the House of Representatives, Nelson served as a payload specialist on a NASA mission, making nearly 100 orbits around the earth in six days.
Virgin Galactic on July 1 announced plans for Sunday’s test space flight, including Branson’s participation. Bezos’ planned flight on July 20 was already public at that time, leading to believe that Branson intentionally wanted to beat Bezos in space.
Executives at Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have publicly gone back and forth on the limits of space, and Nelson said the competitive spirit and ‘trash talk’ is an understandable part of what some have called billionaire space race.
NASA chief says “real space race” with China
But when it comes to the United States, Nelson said the government is focusing on China.
“The real space race, which was with the Soviet Union years ago, I think the space race is going to be more and more with China, as the Chinese government becomes more and more more aggressive in its space program and, I could say, very successful. “
Nelson said China has not been very transparent around its space program, but noted that the United States has been able to work with rival nations – the former Soviet Union, now Russia. – in space despite the geopolitical tensions that existed on earth.
“In the midst of the Cold War, in 1975, an American spacecraft surrendered and docked to a Soviet spacecraft and the crews lived together for nine days,” Nelson recalled. “Since we have cooperation between the Russians and the Americans in civilian space. They are our partners aboard the International Space Station.”
China’s efforts so far “remind us of the early days of the former Soviet Union, but we broke that mold with the Russians,” he said.
– CNBC Michael sheetz contributed to this report.