A space race is on between two competing billionaires, namely Amazon’s CEO and the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, and British billionaire Richard Branson.
Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin venture have certainly hogged the media deadlines of late, that will see Bezos and his brother, an unnamed auction winner, and an 82 year-old woman take part in Blue Origin’s inaugural crewed flight of its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft on 20th July.
But Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic have been developing its spacecraft for space tourists for over a decade now and its first commercial flight had been expected some time this year.
And last month Virgin Galactic quietly gained the official blessing from the US aviation safety regulator (the FAA) to fly people to outer space.
Now on Thursday, Virgin Galactic announced it would beat Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos to space, when it announced its first fully crewed spaceflight (Unity 22) set for Sunday 11 July, nine days before the Blue Origin the flight.
It should be remembered that Virgin Galactic had planned to start flying customers years ago, but its development program was set back by several mishaps, including a 2014 test fight accident that resulted in the death of a co-pilot.
“The ‘Unity 22’ mission will be the twenty-second flight test for VSS Unity and the Company’s fourth crewed spaceflight,” announced Virgin Galactic. “It will also be the first to carry a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists in the cabin, including the Company’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, who will be testing the private astronaut experience”.
Virgin Galactic said for the first time it will share a global livestream of the spaceflight.
People can view it on Virgin Galactic.com, and will be simulcast on the Virgin Galactic Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook channels.
The flight’s four mission specialists will include Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer at Virgin Galactic; Sirisha Bandla, VP of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic; and finally Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic.
The pilots for this mission are Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci flying VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer flying VMS Eve.
“Our next flight – the 22nd flight test for VSS Unity and our first fully crewed flight test – is a testament to the dedication and technical brilliance of our entire team, and I’d like to extend a special thank you to our pilots and mission specialists, each of whom will be performing important work,” said Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said.
“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,” said Colglazier.
“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” Sir Richard Branson added. “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.”
“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,” said Sir Richard. “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.”
It should be noted that Virgin Galactic’s approach to space differs from that of SpaceX and Blue Origin, with the latter two using reusable rockets that are launched from the earth’s surface.
The Blue Origin flight costs dramatically more money, but it goes past the Kármán line, the 62-mile-high boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, in a flight that will last just 11 minutes.
Virgin Galactic on the other hand launches a jet-powered glider from a quadjet cargo aircraft, to get its passengers to 55 miles above planet Earth, which the US still recognises as outer space.
A single ticket for Branson’s SpaceShipTwo costs $250,000, and takes the passengers to nearly nearly 300,000 feet above planet Earth (or 89km or 55 miles), where they can experience weightlessness during a brief suborbital flight.
“I’ve always been a dreamer,” tweeted Sir Richard. “My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars. On July 11, it’s time to turn that dream into a reality aboard the next @VirginGalactic spaceflight https://virg.in/4wiq #Unity22