Virgin Galactic will be the first rocket company to launch the boss when Richard Branson ties himself into one of his sleek, shiny spacecraft this weekend.
The self-described unscrupulous adventurer and troublemaker will join five corporate employees for Sunday’s test flight from New Mexico’s southern desert – the company’s fourth trip to the edge of space.
Branson awarded Virgin Galactic’s first full-scale crew and jumped ahead of Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos, an even richer rocketeer who wants to shoot himself into space. Bezos̵
A brief look at Branson’s tour and company:
BOSS ON BOARD
Just a week shy of turning 71, the London-born founder of Virgin Group says he “is not afraid at all and it’s a dream for life” to run into space. The longtime fitness fanatic made an extra effort to prepare for the short up-and-down flight. “I’m in my 70s now, so you either let go of yourself, otherwise you’re getting in shape and enjoying life.” His wife, children and grandchildren will be there as he climbs aboard the rocket plane, which is attached to a double-hull aircraft to take off. During the three to four minute weightlessness “I will look back on our beautiful earth and take it all in and realize that only 500 other people have done this.” Nearly 600, in fact, but still a relatively small number. After landing, he celebrates with “a big, big laugh in my face.”
WHO OTHERS FLY
Two pilots are needed to fly the rocket plane from the moment it is released from the mother ship to launch into space until it slides down to a runway. It will be the third trip to space for chief pilot David Mackay, a Scottish-born test pilot for the Royal Air Force who continued to fly to Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, and the second for chief flight instructor Michael Masucci. Chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, a former NASA engineer, is also launching for the second time. Joining Branson as a space novice are lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, a vice president. The six will take a lift from mother ship pilots CJ Sturckow, a former NASA astronaut and Kelly Latimer.
Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft, Unity, will depart attached to a specially designed twin aircraft nicknamed Eve after Branson’s deceased mother. After reaching nearly 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), the plane is released and drops a moment or two before its rocket engine ignites to send the vessel on a steep climb toward space in excess of 3G or three times the force of Earth’s gravity. The engine is switched off when the vessel reaches space – a maximum height of approx. 55 miles (88 kilometers) is expected – enclosing the ship in silence as everyone except the pilots spans, floats and looks out of the 17 windows facing the Earth and the black hole of space. After a few minutes of weightlessness, the occupants bind themselves back when the plane retracts for entry – folding its wings up and then folding them down again in unique technique known as removal. The rocket plane will slide back, NASA space shuttle style, to conclude approx. 15 minutes free flight.
Founded in 2004, Virgin Galactic got its start when Branson teamed up with aircraft designer Burt Rutan to deliver the necessary spaceship technology. A 2007 rocket engine test in the California Mojave Desert left three workers dead and three more injured. So in 2014, the rocket Enterprise – named after the “Star Trek” ship – broke apart during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other. Unity, the replacement ship named after the late physicist Stephen Hawking, began flight testing in 2016. It made its first trip to the edge of space with two pilots in 2018 and the second in 2019, both times from Mojave. Operations moved to New Mexico’s Spaceport America, where the plane took off on May 22 to achieve the company’s third spaceflight.
Following Branson’s launch, Virgin Galactic is planning two more test flights this summer and fall before inviting paying customers on board. The next will include more company employees, and the last will have Italian Air Force members doing research. If all goes well, the first of the more than 600 confirmed ticket holders will climb aboard next year. The company plans to reopen reservations when Branson hovers. The first tickets cost $ 250,000; no word on whether it will change. Branson promises a surprise after his turn by “giving more people the chance to become an astronaut – because space belongs to all of us.” Meanwhile, scientists are embarking on research trips, including the Southwest Research Institute’s Alan Stern, who was behind NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institutes Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.