NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Monday commended Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson after he traveled to the fringe of space as a passenger on his company’s VSS Cohesion spacecraft.
“We achieve up Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom into suborbit 60 years ago, and now we have arrive to this, and I think it’s great,” Nelson, who went to space in the 1980s, said in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Field.”
Branson’s flight was a milestone nearly two decades in the making after the billionaire businessman started his space tourism firm in 2004. VSS Cohesion on Sunday reached an altitude of 86.1 kilometers, which is equivalent to 53.5 miles or about 282,000 toes. It took off from Spaceport America in Original Mexico and later landed back at the facility.
Branson’s carefully watched flight made him the first of the billionaire space company creators to cruise on his contain spacecraft, ahead of Jeff Bezos, who started Blue Origin, and Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are more narrate rivals, competing in the area called suborbital space tourism. SpaceX flies longer journeys into orbit and has carried astronauts to the International Space Station.
Musk has a imprint for a future flight on a Virgin Galactic time out.
Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson prepares to spray champagne after flying with a crew in Virgin Galactic’s passenger rocket plane VSS Cohesion to the fringe of space at Spaceport America near Fact or Consequences, Original Mexico, U.S., July 11, 2021.
Joe Skipper | Reuters
“I think what these billionaires are doing is great, and I think what Elon Musk has done, going to orbit with astronaut crews, I think that is great,” Nelson said, describing all efforts to endeavor beyond the Earth’s surface in philosophic language.
He also pushed back on criticisms that it’s far now now not purposeful. “We by no means want to lose our character as explorers, as adventurers,” said Nelson, a venerable Democratic U.S. senator from Florida who officially took the helm at NASA in May.
Nelson is a venerable astronaut, too. In 1986, while a member of the Home of Representatives, Nelson served as a payload specialist on a NASA mission, orbiting the Earth nearly 100 times over six days.
Virgin Galactic on July 1 announced its plans for Sunday’s check spaceflight, including Branson’s participation. Bezos’ scheduled flight on July 20 was already public at that point, prompting a widespread belief that Branson intentionally wanted to beat Bezos to space.
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic executives have publicly gone back and forth about the boundary of space, and Nelson said the spirit of competition and “trash talk” is an understandable ingredient to what some have billed as the billionaire space race.
Nonetheless as far as the U.S. is concerned, Nelson said the government is centered on China.
“The real space race, which used to be with the Soviet Union years ago, I think that space race is going to be more and more with China, as the Chinese govt turns into increasingly aggressive in their space program and, I’d say, very profitable.”
Nelson said China has now now not been very transparent around its space program, nonetheless eminent the U.S. has been able to work with rival nations — the venerable Soviet Union, now Russia — in space regardless of geopolitical tensions that existed on Earth.
“Back in the middle of the Cool War, 1975, an American spacecraft rendezvoused and docked with a Soviet spacecraft and the crews lived collectively for nine days,” Nelson recalled. “Ever since we have had cooperation between the Russians and the Americans in civil space. They are our partners on board the International Space Station.”
China’s efforts thus far “reminds us of the conventional Soviet Union early days, nonetheless we broke that mold with the Russians,” he said.
– CNBC’s Michael Sheetz contributed to this relate.