Sir Richard Branson is due to climb into his Virgin Galactic passenger rocket plane and soar more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert to become the first billionaire to leave earth in a rocket ship today.
Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees strapping in for the ride, has touted the flight as a precursor to a new era of space tourism, with the company he founded poised to begin commercial operations next year.
The billionaire will pose for photographs with the other five passengers before the journey which Branson told the Sunday Times was his ‘Star Trek moment’ after being inspired by the franchise as a child, even deliberately designing their uniforms to resemble those worn in the series.
The 70-year-old will fly to the edge of space – nine days before ‘rival’ Jeff Bezos – on a craft built by his own company after declaring it is ‘time to turn my dream into reality’.
He will be the second oldest person to travel to space after 77-year-old John Glenn in 1998.
The billionaire entrepreneur told the Times the view alone will be worth the billion pounds he has spent on the project and added: ‘I think it’s one of the reasons that people want to become astronauts. They want to look back at this beautiful Earth.
‘Every astronaut I’ve known has come back determined that the rest of their lives will be spent working harder to protect the planet that we live on.’
Branson will travel on VSS Unity, which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 2pm (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
He will be joined by chief pilot David Mackay, a Scottish-born test pilot for the Royal Air Force who went on to fly for Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, and chief flight instructor Michael Masucci.
Sir Richard Branson (left) is set to become the first billionaire to leave earth in a rocket today as he will join the crew of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 2pm
Sir Richard Branson has revealed the uniforms were deliberately designed to reflect his love of the Star Trek series. He is pictured with fellow crew members Dave Mackay, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, Sirisha Bandla and pilot Michael Masucci
Billionaire Branson, 70, and five fellow crew members will travel on VSS Unity (pictured), which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 2pm (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico
Also onboard will be chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, a former NASA engineer, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, a company vice president. The six will grab a lift from mothership pilots C.J. Sturckow, a former NASA astronaut, and Kelly Latimer.
A discount travel service it is not. But demand is apparently strong, with several hundred wealthy would-be citizen astronauts already having booked reservations, priced at around £180,000 per ticket.
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 for this mission are Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci flying VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer flying VMS Eve.
Sir Richard, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are all part of what is being dubbed the ‘NewSpace’ set.
The group have all said that they were inspired by the first moon landing in 1969, when the US beat the Soviet Union in the space race, and had previously said how much it would mean for each 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.
But Branson later revealed his suborbital flight was planned nine days before Bezos.
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.
Yesterday, he had tweeted a countdown to the lift-off before fellow entrepreneur Musk, 50, commented: ‘Will see you there to wish you the best.’
Sir Richard soon posted a light-hearted reply that read: ‘Thanks for being so typically supportive and such a good friend, Elon. Great to be opening up space for all – safe travels and see you at Spaceport America!’
The exchange comes as Branson revealed how it had been his dream to go to space ever since seeing the moon landing as a youngster before adding that he now wanted to inspire a new generation.
In the clip posted online earlier today he explained: ‘The moon landing was a catalytic moment for me. I remember my dad taking me outside onto the village green and we just looked up at the moon.
‘I really did think that myself and many other young people would one day be able to go into space. I waited and I waited for that opportunity and it never came but it got me thinking.
‘I went to the registry office and I registered the name Virgin Galactic Airways.’
Sir Richard will fly to the edge of space on a spaceplane built by his own company after declaring it is ‘time to turn my dream into reality’. Pictured: Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, is released from VMS Eve
Following a montage of behind the scenes footage Sir Richard continued: ‘I think in the same way I was inspired by the moon landing, I really hope that there will be millions of kids all over the world that will be captivated and inspired about the possibility of them going to space one day.’
Sir Richard’s 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.
The London-born founder of the Virgin Group, who turns 71 in a week, wasn’t supposed to fly until later this summer. But he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos announced plans to ride his own rocket into space from West Texas on July 20.
Virgin Galactic doesn’t expect to start flying customers before next year. Blue Origin has yet to open ticket sales or even announce prices, but late last week boasted via Twitter that it would take clients higher and offer bigger windows.
Unlike Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which launch capsules atop reusable booster rockets, Virgin Galactic uses a twin-fuselage aircraft to get its rocket ship aloft. The space plane is released from the mothership about 44,000 feet (13,400 meters) up, then fires its rocket motor to streak straight to space. Maximum altitude is roughly 55 miles (70 kilometers), with three to four minutes of weightlessness provided.
The rocket plane – which requires two pilots – glides to a runway landing at its Spaceport America base.
Virgin Galactic reached space for the first time in 2018, repeating the feat in 2019 and again this past May, each time with a minimal crew. It received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration last month to start launching customers.
It comes after Sir Richard’s daughter Holly says she ‘hasn’t left dad’s side’ for days as she eagerly anticipates his blast off into space aboard Sunday’s historic Virgin Galactic flight.
The 39-year-old, an executive at Virgin, reflected on her father’s love of exploration in a tweet posted one day before lift-off.
She wrote: ‘I haven’t left Dad’s side the last few days! It’s bringing back so many memories of his ballooning adventures when I would follow him around like a puppy for weeks before a trip! Now I’m doing it all over again, and Etta is doing the same!’
Holly is the eldest child of Richard Branson and his wife Joan. The University College London graduate worked as a junior doctor for Britain’s National Health Service before joining the Virgin Group in 2008.
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.
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.
‘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.’
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.
Sir Richard moved his trip to space to an earlier test flight after Jeff Bezos announced he was going up, but claims no rivalry
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 news that Branson would go up on this flight came soon after the FCC granted Virgin Galactic a change to their operator license 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 License, the pathway towards commercial launch is clear,’ Branson said.
‘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.
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 (pictured in 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
Elon Musk buys ticket on Sir Richard’s space flight
Elon Musk has bought a ticket on one of rival billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s spaceship flights, according to a newspaper report.
As Sir Richard prepares to fly on Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed flight to the edge of space on Sunday from New Mexico, The Sunday Times says Mr Musk – who owns rival exploration company SpaceX – has paid for a seat on a future Virgin voyage.
Mr Musk paid a 10,000-dollar (£7,000) deposit to reserve a seat. No date for his flight has been specified.
Sir Richard confirmed the purchase in an interview with The Sunday Times, saying he might reciprocate by booking a ticket on a SpaceX flight in the future.
‘Elon’s a friend and maybe I’ll travel on one of his ships one day,’ he said.
Amid what has been dubbed the billionaires’ space race, SpaceX has launched dozens of rockets, including manned flights, but Mr Musk himself has not yet flown on any.
Sir Richard will become the first owner-astronaut to take part in a mission, beating Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who plans to reach space in his own rocket – through his Blue Origin company – in nine days’ time.
Tourists are expected to pay some £180,000 for a spaceflight on Virgin Galactic, which includes four minutes of zero gravity.
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.
‘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.
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.
Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, who flew to space on the company’s second spaceflight mission
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
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 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
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)
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