Richard Branson goes to space with Virgin Galactic this SUNDAY

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Sir Richard Branson will fly to the edge of space on a spaceplane built by his own company on Sunday, declaring it is ‘time to turn my dream into reality,’ as he takes to the stars nine days before rival Jeff Bezos.

He will travel on VSS Unity, which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The extraordinary trip is one week before his 71st birthday, and he will be joined by five others on what has been dubbed the Unit 22 test flight – as it is the 22nd test flight for the spaceplane.

The British billionaire will launch on the first of the three test flights carrying a full complement of ‘astronauts’ in the cabin, before they begin flying the first of 600 ‘future astronaut’ ticket holders in 2022.

Branson is Astronaut 001 and will travel with Chief Astronaut Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003) and VP of Government Affairs Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004) in the cabin. 

Meanwhile, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos will launch to the edge of space on the New Shepherd rocket on July 20 – the 52nd anniversary of the first moon landing. 

Branson denied that he and Bezos were in a ‘battle of the billionaire space founders’ to see who would go up first, despite changing from the second to the first VSS Unity test flight in order to go up before Bezos.

‘I just wish him and people going up with him all the very best,’ he said, adding he ‘looks forward to talking to him about his ride when he comes back.’  

Virgin Galactic founder, Sir Richard Branson, moved his trip to space to an earlier test flight after Jeff Bezos announced he was going up, but claims no rivalry, saying 'we both wished each other well'

Virgin Galactic founder, Sir Richard Branson, moved his trip to space to an earlier test flight after Jeff Bezos announced he was going up, but claims no rivalry, saying ‘we both wished each other well’

He will travel to space on VSS Unity on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico

He will travel to space on VSS Unity on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico

He will travel on VSS Unity, which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unity is seen here attached to Eve

He will travel on VSS Unity, which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unity is seen here attached to Eve

THE BILLIONAIRE SPACE RACE 

Dubbed the ‘NewSpace’ set, Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk all say they were inspired by the first moon landing in 1969, when the US beat the Soviet Union in the space race, and there is no doubt how much it would mean to each of them to win the ‘new space race’.

Amazon founder Bezos had looked set to be the first of the three to fly to space, having announced plans to launch aboard his space company Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft on July 20.  

However, Branson has now announced he’s planning to make a suborbital flight nine days before Bezos and his brother.

Although SpaceX and Tesla founder Musk has said he wants to go into space, and even ‘die on Mars’, he has not said when he might blast into orbit. 

SpaceX appears to be leading the way in the broader billionaire space race with numerous launches carrying NASA equipment to the ISS and partnerships to send tourists to space by 2021.  

Joining the Virgin Galactic staff filling the cabin, pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci will fly VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer will fly VMS Eve.

Once it reaches 50,000 feet the carrier plane releases Unity, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. 

Once released Unity’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic.

The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth’s surface.

‘I’ve always been a dreamer. My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars,’ said Branson.

There are dozens of ‘founder astronauts’ who purchased a ticket to travel to space in the first years after the firm was formed who will be at the launch on Sunday. 

Among them is Namira Salim, who hopes to launch early next year. She has been waiting 15 years to launch, and become the first person from Pakistan in space.

Salim has been an active ambassador for space as the new frontier for peace, and says she can’t wait to watch the launch on Sunday, and then go up herself. 

Branson said he was going into space to ‘test the customer experience’ from start to finish, to ensure that those paying to go up get the best possible experience. 

It will be the fourth crewed flight of VSS Unity and only the second to include passengers in the cabin, the first saw Beth Moses go up in February 2019.

The news that Branson would go up on this flight came soon after the FCC granted Virgin Galactic a change to their operator licence that allowed them to take paying travellers up to the edge of space.

‘After a successful flight in late May and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for a Full Commercial Launch Licence, the pathway towards commercial launch is clear,’ Branson said. 

A photo shows the release of VSS Unity from VMS Eve and ignition of rocket motor over Spaceport America, New Mexico

A photo shows the release of VSS Unity from VMS Eve and ignition of rocket motor over Spaceport America, New Mexico

The crew will test all aspects of the astronaut experience, including the view of the Earth from the windows, as seen here during a flight in December 2018

The crew will test all aspects of the astronaut experience, including the view of the Earth from the windows, as seen here during a flight in December 2018

Chief Astronaut Beth Moses tested the Virgin Galactic cabin in the first flight last year with someone other than the pilots on board, she will join Sir Richard for his flight on Sunday

Chief Astronaut Beth Moses tested the Virgin Galactic cabin in the first flight last year with someone other than the pilots on board, she will join Sir Richard for his flight on Sunday 

THE UNITY 22 CREW 

Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic

Moses will serve as cabin lead and test director in space, overseeing the safe and efficient execution of the test flight objectives 

Colin Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer at Virgin Galactic 

Bennett will evaluate cabin equipment, procedures, and experience during both the boost phase and in the weightless environment 

Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic 

Bandla will be evaluating the human-tended research experience, using an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes that will be activated at various points in the flight profile. 

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic 

Branson will evaluate the private astronaut experience and will undergo the same training, preparation and flight as Virgin Galactic’s future astronauts. 

Virgin Galactic will use his observations from his flight training and spaceflight experience to enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers. 

The pilots 

The pilots for this mission are Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci flying VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer flying VMS Eve. 

‘Virgin Galactic still has tests to come, and this is the time for me to assess the astronaut experience.

‘When we return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people the chance to become an astronaut. Because space belongs to us all. So watch this space,’ said Branson in a blog post before the launch. 

This will be the first of three final flights required to test all aspects of the cabin and passenger experience, with Branson saying he got ‘truly excited’ when the final safety checks cam through and he was asked if he wanted to go into space

‘I’ve been looking forward to this for 17 years,’ Branson said from Spaceport America near the remote town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

He said pre-flight preparations only add to the excitement ahead of Sunday’s scheduled launch, which will be taking place one week before his 71st birthday. ‘Every bit about it is a pinch-me moment,’ he added.

For the first flight that included someone in the cabin, Chief Astronaut Beth Moses went up into space alone, only accompanied by the two pilots in the cockpit. 

This will be the first flight to carry a full complement of space travellers, consisting of Branson, two pilots and three mission specialists, who are all members of the Virgin Galactic management team.

Branson has been styled as Astronaut 001 for the first full-cabin flight, although it isn’t clear whether this numbering scheme will continue after paying passengers start going into space.

He will travel with Virgin Galactic Chief Astronaut Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003) and Vice President of Government Affairs Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004). They will fly along with pilots David Mackay, Michael Masucci up front of the VSS Unity spaceship. 

‘We are at the vanguard of a new industry determined to pioneer twenty-first century spacecraft, which will open space to everybody — and change the world for good,’ Branson declared. 

In a blog post on the run up to the flight, Branson wrote: ‘It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality. 

‘As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honoured to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.’

Virgin Galactic said the aim of the upcoming flight will be to evaluate the commercial customer cabin to test the environment, seat comfort, weightless experience and view of the Earth from space.

This is ‘all to ensure every moment of the astronaut’s journey maximises the wonder and awe created by space travel,’ the firm wrote.

They are also demonstrating the conditions for conducting human-tended research experiments, a new area of business opened up for the space firm.

Virgin Galactic´s Richard Branson is set to beat Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos being the first to blast off into space on their July 11 flight. Branson is pictured in 2019

Virgin Galactic´s Richard Branson is set to beat Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos being the first to blast off into space on their July 11 flight. Branson is pictured in 2019

Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, who flew to space on the company’s second spaceflight mission will be on board

Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, who flew to space on the company’s second spaceflight mission will be on board

Colin Bennett, the company’s lead operations engineer, will also join the flight

Colin Bennett, the company’s lead operations engineer, will also join the flight

Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research operations

Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research operations

TIMELINE: VSS UNITY UPCOMING LAUNCHES 

July 11, 2021: Sir Richard Branson travels to the edge of space in the VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

It will fly to a height of 55 miles (89km) and then glide back down to Earth.

He will be joined by three mission specialists testing the customer experience. 

Summer 2021: A second test flight is due to take place with a full load to test the passenger cabin.

It is set to include the pilots plus four as yet unnamed Virgin Galactic employees.  

Late 2021: First revenue generation flight with the Italian Air Force to test passenger and payload.

This flight will take both astronauts and scientific equipment to the edge of space on VSS Unity. 

Early 2022: The start of full commercial flights from Spaceport America.

The dozens of Future Astronauts, who paid to fly to the edge of space, will begin earning their astronaut wings. 

They have already sent a payload up for NASA and next year will send Kellie Gerardi, a researcher for the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), up on VSS Unity to monitor experiments. 

The crew will also work to confirm the training program at Spaceport America supports the spaceflight experience, before customers go up.

Unlike previous test flights, where footage was shared after the event, this flight will be streamed live.

‘Audiences around the world are invited to participate virtually in the Unity 22 test flight and see first-hand the extraordinary experience Virgin Galactic is creating for future astronauts,’ the firm wrote.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are competing head-to-head in the emerging space tourism business.

The first of the two will be directly competing to take paying passengers to the edge of space in a sub-orbital flight, allowing them to earn their astronaut wings.

They will also be competing to send science payloads and researchers up so they can test their experiments while in a low gravity environment. 

Branson denied he and Bezos were in a contest to see who would go up first.

‘I just wish him and people going up with him all the very best. I look forward to talking to him about his ride when he comes back,’ Branson said of Bezos. ‘I spoke to him two or three weeks ago, and we both wished each other well.’

Success for both ventures is considered key to fostering a burgeoning industry that aims to eventually make space tourism mainstream. 

Virgin has said two additional test flights of its vehicle after the one on July 11 are planned before the company begins commercial service in 2022. 

This will include another full cabin experience test, as well as a flight taking up a crew from the Italian airforce. 

Branson said he anticipates offering paid flights on a ‘regular basis’ next year, which will come as a relief for the 600 ‘future astronaut’ ticket holders who have waited over a decade for the opportunity to go into space. 

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity, piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, is released from its mothership, VMS Eve, on the way to its first spaceflight after launch from Spaceport America, New Mexico in May

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, is released from its mothership, VMS Eve, on the way to its first spaceflight after launch from Spaceport America, New Mexico in May

Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) touches down after flying freely for the first time after being released from Virgin Mothership Eve (VMS Eve) on 3rd, December 2016 in the Mojave Desert

Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) touches down after flying freely for the first time after being released from Virgin Mothership Eve (VMS Eve) on 3rd, December 2016 in the Mojave Desert

Virgin Galactic's First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018. In the past two and a half years the spaceliner has gone from test flights with passengers, to taking founder Sir Richard Branson to the edge of space

Virgin Galactic’s First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018. In the past two and a half years the spaceliner has gone from test flights with passengers, to taking founder Sir Richard Branson to the edge of space

Salim, one of the earliest future astronaut ticket holders, wished Sir Richard Branson good luck. She said the firm was helping to fulfil her childhood dream of going into space, first formed as a little girl from Pakistan. 

‘I wish you all the very best in skyrocketing as the first private spaceline in the world. Richard you have delivered your promise and you are our ace of space,’ she said. 

Branson said he was confident there was plenty of room in the market for his venture and Bezos’ company to compete.

‘Neither of us are going to be able to build enough spaceships to satisfy the demand,’ Branson said. 

Michael Colglazier, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Galactic, said the 22nd flight test for VSS Unity is a ‘testament to the dedication and technical brilliance of our entire team’.

‘I’d like to extend a special thank you to our pilots and mission specialists, each of whom will be performing important work,’ he added. 

‘Tapping into Sir Richard’s expertise and long history of creating amazing customer experiences will be invaluable as we work to open the wonder of space travel and create awe-inspiring journeys for our customers.’

HOW DOES RICHARD BRANSON’S VIRGIN GALACTIC CONDUCT ITS SPACE FLIGHTS?

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch.

Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).

The first WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve – which Virgin Galactic has used on all of its test flights – was rolled-out in 2008 and has a high-altitude, heavy payload capacity.

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.

Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to build more in future.

Once released from WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic.

The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth’s surface.

WhiteKnightTwo (artist's impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

WhiteKnightTwo (artist’s impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

This altitude is defined as beyond the edge of outer space by Nasa.

After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will shut it down, and passengers can then take off their seatbelts to experience weightlessness for several minutes.

The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to give the best possible views of Earth and space while raising the vehicle’s wings to its ‘feathered’ re-entry configuration, which decelerates the craft and stabilises its descent.

As gravity pulls the spaceship back towards the Earth’s upper atmosphere, astronauts will return to their seats ready to return to our planet.

At around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres), after re-entry, the pilot will return the spaceship’s wings to their normal configuration, ready to glide back to Earth for a smooth runway landing. 

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) - the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights - though the firm is expected to produce more in future

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to produce more in future

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