Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is set to take his first jaunt to the edge of space ahead of commercial spaceflight rival Jeff Bezos, with an 11 July trip aboard VSS Unity.
Last night’s announcement listed Branson among the four passengers aboard the flight, the 22nd flight test for the rocket-powered glider, although, if successful, only the fourth to reach the edge of space (depending on one’s definition of where space starts).
Yesterday was also notable for the confirmation by Bezos’ Blue Origin of the intention to fly Mercury 13 member Wally Funk with the Bezos brothers on the first crewed flight of the New Shepard. That flight is scheduled for 20 July.
Unashamed showman Branson has tried to trump that, even if VSS Unity will not soar as high as the New Shepard. Its last test flight reached just over 89km while the New Shepard went comfortably beyond 100km.
The difference is significant, depending on where you think the line between the atmosphere and space lies. Known as the Kármán line, NASA, the FAA and the US Air Force put it at 80km above Earth. However, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) has it at 100km. And the latter is responsible for records in astronautics.
Other measures put it at 122km, meaning that both Bezos and Branaon will both fall short. Both will however get their astronaut wings from the US Air Force, so that’s alright then.
Should all go to plan (Virgin Galactic has coyly only said that the window opens on 11 July), Branson will be the first of the duo to take a flight. As the namesake of Bezos’ New Shepard – Alan Sheperd – understood only too well, being first carries its own significance.
Branson’s fellow passengers will be made up of chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, who took a suborbital flight aboard VSS Unity in 2019, and lead operations engineers Colin Bennett and Virgin Galactic veep of Government Affairs and Research Operations Sirisha Bandla.
VSS Unity itself will be flown by Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci. Former Space Shuttle astronaut CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer will fly carrier mothership VMS Eve.
Branson had been expected to jump the queue and steal a march on Bezos after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave the company the nod to start flying passengers. He was originally pencilled in to be on the flight after this, ahead of a final test flight before operations were expected to begin.
The bearded one underlined the lengthy journey it had taken to get to this point, beset by accidents and technical issues, and said: “After more than 16 years of research, engineering, and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry, which is set to open space to humankind and change the world for good.”
Your move, Jeff. ®