Richard Branson may soon have new bragging rights.
The British entrepreneur aims to earn his astronaut wings on Sunday and is trying to fly to space aboard a rocket-powered vehicle developed by his space company, Virgin Galactic. Even though it was only a test flight, the expedition – Virgin Galactic’s first full crew – could be a big boost for the company, which aims to start commercial flights with paying customers in 2022.
If successful, Branson’s trip to space would exclude fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is planning a similar feat on July 20 aboard a rocket and capsule designed by his own space company, Blue Origin. Although Branson, 70, has withdrawn from notions that he is competing with Bezos, the timing of the two flights is the culmination of a years-long rivalry between Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and other companies fighting for a leg up in the burgeoning space tourism industry.
Virgin Galactic’s flights start from Spaceport America along a desolate stretch of desert in New Mexico. The company’s SpaceShipTwo Unity craft is designed to take off on a conventional runway while attached to the lower abdomen of a transport ship known as the WhiteKnightTwo. The vehicles fly to an altitude of 50,000 feet, whereupon Unity is subsequently released and its engine ignites to rocket to the edge of space.
Branson’s flight is expected to start Sunday morning, but the exact timing depends on clear weather. Virgin Galactic will be hosting a livestream hosted by comedian Stephen Colbert across its social channels, beginning at 7 p.m. 9 ET.
Branson is joined on the run by pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci and three mission specialists, all of whom are employees of Virgin Galactic: Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses, Chief Operating Engineer Colin Bennett and Vice President of Government Affairs Sirisha Bandla.
Virgin Galactic is expected to conduct several additional test flights before commencing commercial operations with private customers next year. The company has said the suborbital joyrides are likely to cost more than $ 250,000 each, but the final pricing has not yet been announced.
Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, but the company’s progress – as is the case with much of the private space industry – has taken years longer than expected. The company suffered a high-profile setback in 2014 when its first-generation SpaceShipTwo vehicle crashed into the California Mojave Desert during a test flight, killing one of the two pilots on board.
“It’s taken 17 years to get to this flight, and of course a lot of personal wealth has been poured into it, but it also shows that this requires perseverance,” said Greg Autry, an expert on space policy at Arizona State University.
In addition to space tourism, Branson’s business empire includes Virgin Orbit, which launches satellites from a modified Boeing 747 aircraft flying over the Mojave Desert.
This weekend’s flight adds more fuel to rivalry among the billionaire actors in the private space industry. Until now, commercial launches have been dominated by Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, which has ferried cargo ships to and from the International Space Station and last year NASA astronauts flew to the orbiting laboratory.
SpaceX is planning other orbital tourism flights, including the first mission to space with a completely civilian crew.
Meanwhile, Bezos is planning his own journey to suborbital space on July 20, when he is ready to take off on the first operational flight with Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and capsule.
The New Shepard rocket launches vertically from a location in the Texas desert southeast of El Paso. Despite the different starts, the rides are expected to be similar, though Blue Origin’s capsule can reach higher heights than Virgin Galactic’s Unity craft. This has become a point of contention where Blue Origin suggests that Branson’s flight does not officially reach space.
The edge of the room is often defined by the so-called Kármán line at an altitude of 100 km. Unlike the device, the New Shepard capsule is designed to fly over the Kármán line, although the Federal Aviation Administration and the US Air Force both recognize a lower limit for the edge of space at an altitude of 50 miles.
Bezos is joined on his flight by his brother Mark Bezos and Wally Funk, an 82-year-old former test pilot and one of the “Mercury 13” women who underwent training in the 1960s to demonstrate that women can meet NASA standards for its astronaut corps. An unidentified passenger who paid more than $ 28 million in an online auction for the last seat rounds out the crew of four people.