Virgin Galactic launches Richard Branson and three company employees to the edge of space on the morning of Sunday, July 11th. The company promises a big show for the mission: Stephen Colbert will host the mission livestream, singer-songwriter Khalid will reportedly perform a new single live on stage after the spacecraft landed, and Branson has said he will “announce something very exciting” after his space flight.
The flight marks one of the company’s final test missions before aiming to start commercial space business next year. The mission, called Unity 22, will mark Virgin Galactic̵
The action begins when Virgin Galactic’s double-body WhiteKnight aircraft takes off from Spaceport America, the company’s spaceflight in New Mexico on Sunday morning. The WhiteKnight aircraft, VMS Eve, will carry a rocket-powered spaceship called VSS Unity, with Branson and others on board. About 40 minutes after takeoff, Unity will fall from the mother ship and ignite its rocket engine moments later to send Branson and crew to the edge of space, about 55 miles high, in a few minutes of weightlessness. Unit returns to a runway at Spaceport America, just like any normal commercial aircraft.
Unit 22 is an important step forward for Virgin Galactic’s ambitions for space tourism, a burgeoning market aimed at wealthy adventure seekers. The company, which started in 2004, has already sold about 600 tickets, each costing around $ 250,000. Branson is just one player in the billionaire-led race for the right to space tourists. He fights Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which aims to launch passengers on his suborbital New Shepard rocket, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which plans to put tourists in its orbital Crew Dragon capsule for a longer and more expensive experience in space.
Sunday’s mission has also been surrounded by an increasingly spicy air of competition with Bezos. Virgin Galactic announced Branson’s space flight a few weeks after Blue Origin announced it would send Bezos into space on July 20. Blue Origin then announced that it would also fly Wally Funk on its July 20 mission, an aviator that originally planned to fly on Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft first. Branson denies that his new flight date was meant to hit Bezos in space; He told Washington Post last week it was just a “wonderful case that we were going up in the same month.”
Watch Virgin Galactic’s livestream from 9 ET on Sunday on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.