Richard Branson finally gets his trip to space on Sunday.
It has been a very long wait for Mr. Branson, the reverent, 70-year-old British billionaire who leads a galaxy of virgin companies. In 2004, he founded Virgin Galactic to provide adventurous rides on rocket-powered aircraft to the edge of space and back.
At the time, he thought commercial service would begin in two to three years. Instead, almost 17 years have passed. Virgin Galactic says it still has three more test flights to complete, including that Sunday, before it can be ready for paying passengers.
When is the flight and how can I see it?
The flight is scheduled to start Sunday morning from Spaceport America in New Mexico, approximately 180 miles south of Albuquerque.
Virgin broadcasts coverage of the flight, which begins at. 9 Eastern Time, where Stephen Colbert hosts livestream. Singer Khalid is scheduled to perform a new song after the crew lands, and Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, suggested he might look.
What is Virgin Galactic’s space plan and what will it do?
The rocket plane, a type called SpaceShipTwo, is about the size of an executive jet. In addition to the two pilots, there will be four people in the cabin. This particular SpaceShipTwo is called VSS Unity.
To get off the ground, the unit is carried by a larger plane to a height of approx. 50,000 feet. Unity will be released and the rocket plane’s engine will ignite. The acceleration makes people on board feel a force up to 3.5 times their normal weight on their way to an altitude of more than 50 miles.
At the top of the arc, those on board will be able to get out of their seats and experience about four minutes of apparent weightlessness. Of course, they actually would not have avoided gravity. Fifty miles up, the Earth’s descending gravity is pretty much as strong as it is on Earth; rather, passengers will fall at the same pace as the plane around them.
The two tail booms at the rear of the space plane rotate up to a “feathered” configuration that creates more traction and stability so the plane can enter the Earth’s atmosphere more gently. This configuration makes the SpaceShipTwo more like a badminton bolt that always falls with the pointed side down rather than a plane.
Still, the forces that passengers feel on the way down will be greater than on the way up and reach six times the force of gravity.
When the plane is back in the atmosphere, the tail booms rotate down again and the plane slides to a landing. The whole flight can take less than two hours.
Who are the crew members on board the flight?
The pilots are David Mackay and Michael Masucci.
In addition to Mr. Branson will have three Virgin Galactic employees evaluate how the experience will be for future paying customers. They are Beth Moses, the greatest astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, senior operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations. Ms. Bandla will also conduct a scientific experiment provided by the University of Florida.