Virgin Galactic will today send the company’s passenger rocket plane, the VSS Unity, on its first fully crewed test flight to the edge of space, with its founder Richard Branson strapped for the ride.
On board with the British billionaire are five other individuals.
The gleaming white spaceplane will be borne by a twin-fuselage carrier jet dubbed VMS Eve (named for Branson’s mother) to an altitude of 50,000 feet, where Unity will be released and soar by rocket power in an almost vertical climb through the outer fringe of Earth’s atmosphere.
At the apex of its flight some 55 miles (89 km) above the New Mexico desert, the crew will experience a few minutes of weightlessness before making a gliding descent back to Earth.
If all goes according to plan, the flight will last about 90 minutes and end where it began – on a runway at Spaceport America near the aptly named town of Truth or Consequences.
Accompanying Branson will be Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, Virgin Galactic lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, the vice president of government affairs and research operations at the company.
VSS Unity will be piloted by Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, with C.J. Sturckow and Kelly Latimer piloting VMS Eve.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for 17 years,” Branson said in an interview from Spaceport America.
The flight will be broadcast live from 9am EDT (2pm British Summer Time), according to the company’s Twitter feed
Virgin’s Unity 22 mission marks the 22nd test flight of the spacecraft, and the company’s fourth crewed mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
But it will be the first to carry a full complement of space travellers – two pilots and four “mission specialists,” Branson among them.
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Although the mission is seen as a potential milestone in helping transform citizen rocket travel into a mainstream commercial venture, spaceflight remains an inherently hazardous endeavor.
An earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.
If successful, Sunday’s flight will also give Branson bragging rights to besting rival Jeff Bezos and his space company, Blue Origin, in what has been popularized as a “billionaire space race.”
Bezos, founder of online retail giant Amazon.com, is slated to fly aboard Blue Origin’s suborbital rocketship, the New Shepard, on 20 July.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, along with fellow billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are competing head-to-head in the emerging business of space tourism, though Musk has a big head start.
In a Twitter exchange with Branson early on Saturday, Musk said that he would attend the launch “to wish you the best.” It was not immediately clear if Musk would be present at the launch site or join online.
SpaceX, which plans to send its first all-civilian crew (without Musk) into orbit in September, has already launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station.
Branson, 70, insists there is plenty of demand from wealthy would-be citizen astronauts to go around, and that he had no intention of trying to upstage Bezos.
The Virgin brand, including Branson’s airline and former record label, has long been associated with exploits of derring-do by its flamboyant founder.
Branson set a new record for the fastest boat crossing of the Atlantic in 1986, a year after his initial attempt ended with a Royal Air Force helicopter rescue when his vessel capsized.
In 1987 he made a record-breaking Atlantic crossing by hot-air balloon, though again he had to be rescued from the sea. He went on to break at least two other air-balloon speed records but failed to complete any of three bids to circumnavigate the globe by balloon.
As for Sunday’s flight, Branson said this week that he is excited, “and I really don’t think there’s anything there to be scared about.”
Assuming the mission goes well, Virgin has said it plans two further test flights of the spaceplane before beginning commercial service next year.
The company has said it has received more than 600 flight reservations, priced at around $250,000 per ticket, but hopes eventually to slash the cost of each seat to $40,000.