Richard Branson may soon have new bragging rights.
The British entrepreneur aims to earn his astronaut wings on Sunday, attempting to fly through space aboard a rocket-powered vehicle developed by his space tourism company, Virgin Galactic. Although this is only a test flight, the expedition – Virgin Galactic’s first with a full crew – could be a major boost for the company, which aims to launch commercial flights with of paying customers in 2022.
If successful, Branson’s trip to space would get ahead of fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who plans a similar feat on July 20 aboard a rocket and capsule designed by his own space company. , Blue Origin. Although Branson, 70, shrugged off the idea that he was competing with Bezos, the schedule for the two flights is the culmination of a years-long rivalry between Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and other vying companies. for a head start in the booming space tourism industry.
Branson’s flight will be a suborbital jaunt, so rather than reaching orbit and circling around Earth, the vehicle will fly to the edge of space, at an altitude of over 50 miles, where passengers will experience about four minutes of weightlessness before returning to earth. During previous test flights, the winged craft reached an altitude of about 55 miles.
Virgin Galactic flights are launched from Spaceport America, along a desolate expanse of desert in New Mexico. The company’s SpaceShipTwo Unity spacecraft is designed to take off on a conventional runway while strapped to the belly of a carrier ship known as WhiteKnightTwo. The vehicles fly to an altitude of 50,000 feet, where Unity is then released and its engine ignites to propel toward the edge of space.
Branson’s flight is scheduled to depart Sunday morning, but the exact time depends on the clear weather. Virgin Galactic will air a livestream, hosted by comedian Stephen Colbert, on its social media starting at 9 a.m. ET.
Branson will be accompanied on his flight by pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci and three mission specialists, all of whom are Virgin Galactic employees: Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses, Chief Operations Engineer Colin Bennett and the vice president of government affairs Sirisha Bandla.
Virgin Galactic is expected to conduct several additional test flights before it begins commercial operations with private customers next year. The company said the suborbital rides will likely cost more than $ 250,000 each, but the final price has yet to be announced.
Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, but the company’s progress – as is the case with much of the private spaceflight industry – has taken years longer than expected. The company suffered a high-profile setback in 2014 when its first-generation SpaceShipTwo vehicle crashed in California’s Mojave Desert during a test flight, killing one of the two pilots on board.
“It took 17 years to get to this flight, and of course a lot of personal wealth was put into it, but it also shows that it takes tenacity,” said Greg Autry, space policy expert at Arizona. State University.
In addition to space tourism, Branson’s business empire includes Virgin Orbit, which launches satellites from a modified Boeing 747 that flies over the Mojave Desert.
This weekend’s flight adds more fuel to rivalries between billionaire players in the private spaceflight industry. So far, commercial launches have been dominated by Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, which has flown freighters to and from the International Space Station and last year transported NASA astronauts to the orbiting laboratory. .
SpaceX is planning other orbital tourist flights, including the first space mission with an all-civilian crew.
Meanwhile, Bezos is planning his own trip to suborbital space on July 20, when he prepares to make the first operational flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and capsule.
The New Shepard rocket is launched vertically from a site in the Texas desert, southeast of El Paso. Despite the different take-offs, the trips are expected to be similar, although Blue Origin’s capsule can reach higher altitudes than Virgin Galactic’s Unity ship. It has become a point of contention, with Blue Origin suggesting that Branson’s flight will not officially reach space.
The edge of space is often defined by the so-called Kármán line, at an altitude of 100 km. Unlike Unity, 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 will be 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 in the 1960s trained to demonstrate that women can respond. to NASA standards for its astronaut corps. An unidentified passenger who paid more than $ 28 million in an online auction for the last seat will complete the crew of four.