NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Monday praised Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson 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 suborbit 60 years ago, and now we’ve got there and I think it’s great,” said Nelson, who went into space in the 1980s, in an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box “. . “
Branson’s flight marked a milestone, nearly two decades in the making, after the billionaire businessman founded his space tourism company in 2004. VSS Unity reached an altitude of 86.1 kilometers on Sunday, which is 53.5 miles or approximately 282,000 feet. It started from Spaceport America in New Mexico and later landed back at the facility.
Branson’s closely watched flight made him the first of the multi-billion dollar space company creators to fly his own spacecraft, ahead of Jeff Bezos, who founded Blue Origin, and Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX.
Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon and the richest person in the world, is slated to travel into space on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket for a week starting Tuesday.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are more direct rivals, competing in the suborbital space tourism arena. SpaceX is flying long journeys into orbit and has taken astronauts to the International Space Station.
Musk has a ticket for a future flight on a Virgin Galactic trip.
Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson prepares to spray champagne after taking a crew in the Virgin Galactics VSS Unity passenger rocket plane to the edge of space at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the United States, July 11, 2021 has flown.
Joe Skipper | Reuters
“I think what these billionaires are doing is great, and I think what Elon Musk did when he went into orbit with astronaut crews is great,” said Nelson, describing all efforts to go beyond the surface of the earth , in philosophical language.
He has also dismissed criticism that it wasn’t worth it. “We never want to lose our character as explorers, as adventurers,” said Nelson, a former Democratic US Senator from Florida who officially took over the helm of NASA in May.
Nelson is also a retired astronaut. In 1986, as a member of the House of Representatives, Nelson served as a payload specialist on a NASA mission and orbited the earth nearly 100 times in six days.
Virgin Galactic announced its plans for Sunday’s test space flight, including Branson’s participation, on July 1. The July 20th scheduled flight from Bezos was already public by then, sparking the widespread belief that Branson was intent on defeating Bezos into space.
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic executives have publicly gone back and forth across the boundaries of space, and Nelson said the spirit of competition and “trash talk” is an understandable element of what some have called the billionaire space race.
NASA boss says “real space race” with China
But as for the US, Nelson said the government is focused on China.
“The real space race that took place with the Soviet Union years ago will, in my opinion, increasingly take place with China as the Chinese government becomes more and more aggressive in its space program, and I could say very successfully.”
Nelson said China hasn’t been very transparent about its space program, but noted that despite geopolitical tensions on Earth, the US has been able to collaborate in space with rival nations – the former Soviet Union, now Russia.
“Back in the middle of the Cold War in 1975, an American spaceship met and docked with a Soviet spaceship, and the crews lived together for nine days,” recalled Nelson. “Since then we have had cooperation between Russians and Americans in civil space. They are our partners on board the International Space Station.”
China’s efforts so far “remind us of the early days of the old Soviet Union, but we broke that mold with the Russians,” he said.
– CNBC’s Michael Sheetz contributed to this report.