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Billionaire Richard Branson's Historic Trip To The Edge Of Space

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

For years, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have competed to be the first to offer commercial trips to space. And yesterday, Branson, the 70-year-old British billionaire, took the first ride. He successfully reached the outer edge of space on a Virgin Galactic rocket plane named Unity. To reflect on this milestone, we're joined by Nick Schmidle, who joins us on Skype. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who spent four years reporting from inside Virgin Galactic. Good morning, Nick.

NICK SCHMIDLE: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

PFEIFFER: Big, broad question - why was this trip such a big deal?

SCHMIDLE: It was a big deal for a few reasons. It was a huge deal for Richard Branson, who, before becoming a billionaire, had nurtured this dream of flying to space. And so yesterday was, in some ways, a vindication for him. I mean, he's been wanting to do this, as you said, since 2004, when they - when he created Virgin Galactic. And it was always going to be next year, next year, next year. And for a variety of reasons that I detailed in "Test Gods," the book that I wrote, came out two months ago - that, you know, he's just - the program has constantly, you know, for tactical reasons and engineering reasons and all kinds of other reasons, has just kind of eluded him. And so yesterday was a was a big moment for him, proving that they can put - you know, that they could fly this rocket ship to the edge of space with passengers on board. They have done this three previous times, but it had been with test pilots or just with one engineer in the back. So, yeah, this is a big moment for him and for the company.

PFEIFFER: And for those passengers on board, we should note that some of them are private citizens who paid huge amounts of money to go. And other people will pay more. Give us a sense of what people are paying to do this.

SCHMIDLE: Well, so on yesterday's trip, there were - no one - none of them paid. They were all employees of Virgin Galactic that were on board yesterday. Now, Jeff Bezos, however, who is going to fly here in eight days - someone who is as yet unnamed paid $28 million for a seat with Jeff Bezos. So people are ready to pony up massive amounts of cash. And Virgin Galactic has 600 customers who have made a deposit of $200,000 to $250,000 And they are all - they have been waiting since 2004, 2005 for their opportunity to go to space. And now we have taken a step forward.

Now, it's important to note that in some ways, yesterday was kind of a a proof of concept and the realization of creating a commercial space line that has airline-like frequency and that can do it in a way that, in some ways, kind of bucks history. And we have to remember that the fatality rate for space flight is about 3%. And Virgin Galactic knows that if they kill 1 out of every 33 passengers that goes up, that's not going to be a very - it's not a - that's not a solid business model. So they are trying to to to do something that all of the government-funded predecessors have not been able to do, which is to bring that fatality rate down to a fraction of a percent, in many ways, you know, to try and emulate kind of airline safety.

PFEIFFER: In about 30 seconds, how realistic will it ever be for the general public to do this, people who can't pay more than you would buy - you would spend on a house in order to get on one of these?

SCHMIDLE: Well, I mean, look. I still can't afford a business-class ticket across the Atlantic.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

SCHMIDLE: And I don't think that a space flight is going to be less than a business-class ticket across the Atlantic any time in the next decade.

PFEIFFER: Yeah. So for most of us, we'll never get up there.

SCHMIDLE: It'll be a while. So all the talk about democratizing space is noble, but it could be quite some time.

PFEIFFER: That's Nick Schmidle, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His book is called "Test Gods: Virgin Galactic And The Making Of A Modern Astronaut." Thank you, Nick.

SCHMIDLE: Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOCATIV'S "ASCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.