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Virgin Galactic launches Richard Branson into space: Why you should not care

In less than 24 hours, if everything goes according to plan, Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft two unit and the VMS Eve transport aircraft will leave from a lonely runway in one of the most desolate stretches of desert in North America. A full crew will be aboard the suborbital space plane for the first time, including two pilots, three employees and Richard Branson, the company’s 70-year-old billionaire founder.

A crew member, Virgin’s astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, takes the trip for the second time. But the star of the show will be Branson, who has invested for over 1

6 years and more than $ 1 billion. Dollars to finally take the short walk to the edge of space, experience weightlessness and look at the earth that only a privileged few hundred other people have.

“I always imagined as a kid that a spaceship should look like this,” Branson told NBC News. “I was just thinking, this is how you should fly to space.”

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But there is much more at stake on Sunday than the high-flying dreams of a wealthy media and travel magnate.

More than a million taxpayers from New Mexico, including me, have invested nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to build Virgin Galactic’s home in Spaceport America in the hope that its anchor bearings will create a new industry in the state.

“We could not be more excited to finally share this groundbreaking moment with the world,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “The dawn of space tourism is happening right here.”

There are also bragging rights to consider as Branson has scheduled his flight to take place nine days before the second billionaire Jeff Bezos launches one of his Blue Origin rockets into space for the first time on 20 July. Branson has insisted there is no race between himself and Bezos, but the timing is difficult to discount.

Investors will closely monitor the test program that Branson is attending on Sunday. Virgin Galactic is a listed company worth over DKK 11 billion. $ Pr. July 6. And of course, there are the company’s 700 paying customers who have been waiting patiently in the queue, ready to pay over $ 200,000 each for the trip.

In addition, there is a broader vision of easy access to space (or perhaps a planetary escape hatch, depending on your disposition) for humanity. Our species has been send handfuls of people into space
for decades, but the growth rate of the larger human space program has been more or less stagnant for a generation or two now. And the possibility of regular civilians entering space has been almost nil, with the exception of a few who managed to secure a seat by having the highest levels of either political or economic privilege.

Now with Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and also Elon Musks SpaceX, we are finally at the bottom of moving from quirky one-time space tourists to regular commercial trips to microgravity, orbit and maybe even the moon, Mars and beyond, with some hyper-fast point-to-point trips around the world sometimes.

“I really think space belongs to all of us,” Branson says. “Virgin Galactic is at the forefront of a new commercial space industry that is set to open up space for humanity.”

Sunday’s flight can still only be a rich guy, and his staff take a very large altitude hunt, which is likely to be over in under 90 minutes. But it also represents more than that, and it has been a very long road to reach this point.

Dead Man’s Route

One of the longest and most difficult roads in history was the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, which connected Mexico City with Santa Fe and other points for nearly three centuries between 1598 and the end of the 19th century. The most dreaded stretch of the more than 2,414-kilometer journey was the Jornada del Muerto or Dead Man’s Route north of Las Cruces. This flat, dry, desolate basin is 100 miles long and has virtually never been home to anything forever, except now it hosts Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic’s commercial space operations.

More specifically, you will find New Mexico’s publicly funded commercial spaceport near a place that was once called Aleman. The name (as well as the name of Jornada del Muerto) comes from a German refugee who tried to cross the desert during the dry season of 1670. His remains were found after being picked over and spread by vultures, not far from where Branson and the crew leaves on Sunday.

Despite the region’s inability to produce much more than to suffer under its history, hope somehow still springs from this dusty country. Just as generations have crossed it for centuries and sought opportunity and wealth, Virgin Galactic has built its own path of torture, while believing that this empty but quiet beautiful desert valley can be the gateway to a glorious future.

Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004, and just over a year later, an agreement was reached with New Mexico to base the company’s commercial flights in the new spaceport, which is then expected to be completed in 2010. Everything seemed to be underway. At one point, Branson predicted that Virgin could launch as many as 50,000 passengers to the edge of space in its first decade of operations around 2020.

Virgin Galactic aircraft in a hangar

Virgin Galactic aims to eventually launch thousands of passengers a year from Spaceport America.

Eric Mack

Spaceport officially opened in October 2011, but the development of Virgin Galactic’s unique horizontal launch system was slow. Unlike SpaceX or Blue Origin, which places passenger capsules on top of vertically launched rockets, Virgin uses a custom aviation aircraft called the WhiteKnightTwo, which totals SpaceShipTwo, which is essentially a rocket-powered space plane, to an altitude where it is then released to ignite and blast its way towards space.

The company was still working to get the required speed and altitude out of SpaceShipTwo when a fatal accident occurred during a test flight in California in 2014. SpaceShipTwo Enterprise broke apart shortly after starting the engineleaves one co-pilot dead and another seriously injured. Several delays and an investigation followed, but Virgin Galactic was able to resume its test flights with a new SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, by December 2016.

This is just a test

The last five years for Virgin Galactic have been much happier than the previous half decade, even with last year essentially lost by the COVID-19 pandemic. VSS Unity has surpassed its predecessor and carries Moses as the first person in the passenger cabin in 2019. The company revealed its astronaut lounge in Spaceport America later that year and also began trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

A series of revelations – of its flight suit, passenger cabin and the next generation of SpaceShip III joins the Navy – has all led up to this Sunday. Branson and the crew will depart from the center of the Dead Man’s Route using a forgotten piece of dry land to go to places that centuries of miserable visitors to the same valley could hardly dream of.

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With all the hype surrounding Branson’s first journey into space, it’s easy to forget that this is still technically a test flight. His role on the mission is apparently “to evaluate the private astronaut experience.” After Unity returns to Earth, the company is still planning at least two test flights before it will consider putting paying customers on board, probably not until 2022 (although the company does have FAA approval to do it already).

The details of Sunday’s flight remain about as scarce as a watershed between Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences, but we know the abolition of WhiteKnightTwo is expected around 1 p.m. 7 local time (6 p.m. PT). Based on previous test flights, it will take at least 30 minutes for the carrier to reach the altitude at which VSS Unity loosens and ignites its rocket engine.

After exploding at an altitude of approximately 56 miles (90 kilometers) and hovering around in microgravity slightly, the spacecraft returns to landing at Spaceport America, probably no more than 90 minutes after takeoff.

How to Watch Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Flight

Virgin Galactic will have a livestream of the mission, called Unity 22, and you can watch it right here. I also want to be on Earth in Spaceport America all day Sunday so you can also get updates and some details behind the scenes by following me on Twitter and Instagram @EricCMack.

Follow CNETs 2021 Space Calendar to keep up to date with all the latest space news this year. You can even add it to your own Google Calendar.

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