Richard Branson will likely be flying with SpaceShipTwo this weekend. Welcome to the brand new area race!
It’s no secret that the commercial space industry (aka NewSpace) has become immensely lucrative in recent years, and it has also made it highly competitive. To illustrate this, just look at the top three NewSpace companies in the world: SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic. A new space race has begun between these three companies, all started by billionaires with similar visions.
The race has intensified in recent months when Jeff Bezos announced that the New Shepard rocket would make the maiden flight into space. In response, Virgin Galactic’s founder and CEO Richard Branson announced earlier this week that he would fly aboard the VSS Unity when it makes its latest test flight. If successful, Branson will be the first billionaire to fly into space on this mission – scheduled for Sunday, July 11th (weather permitting).
In the past, Branson said he would fly aboard his spacecraft once the company began operating crewed flights. Until recently, company spokesmen said Branson’s flight would take place later that year after another manned test flight took place. But when Bezos announced his plans early last month, there were rumors that Branson was considering speeding up the schedule.
According to their latest updates, Virgin Galactic plans to launch the Unity 22 mission early on Sunday, July 11th. The space probe will take off with its carrier aircraft (WhiteKnightTwo) from Spaceport America in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin in New Mexico. This event will also be shared via a global livestream that can be viewed on Virgin Galactic.com and the company’s Twitter, YouTube and Facebook channels.
Famed comedian Stephen Colbert, who interviewed Branson several times on his late night shows, was confirmed as the host. The event will also be attended by Grammy-nominated singer Khalid, who will debut a new song of her after the test flight at the landing pad. According to the official Virgin Galactic press release, the flight will have a triple purpose:
- The evaluation of the commercial customer cabin with a full crew, including cabin environment, seating comfort, weightless experience, and the view of the earth offered by the spaceship – all to ensure that every moment of the astronaut’s journey is amazed and awe, which space travel generates, maximized
- Demonstration of the conditions for conducting human-friendly research experiments
- Confirmation of the training program at Spaceport America supports the space experience
Chief Pilot Dave Mackay and Pilot Michael Masucci will fly the VSS Unity and its crew for this historic mission. As Virgin Galactic has also indicated, Branson is also accompanied by three mission specialists who perform specific tasks during the flight. First there is space engineer Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Virgin Galactic’s lead astronaut instructor, who flew aboard VSS Unity during a test flight in 2019.
Next up is Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003), the company’s senior operations engineer who will be on site to oversee cabin equipment and help assess the overall experience. Then there is Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004), Vice President of Government Affairs and Research for Virgin Galactic, who will be on board to oversee the mission’s scientific payload. This will consist of a research project from the University of Florida to evaluate hand-held fixation tubes – vessels commonly used in microgravity experiments.
Richard Branson (Astronaut 001) is tasked with evaluating the “private astronaut experience” and receives the same training and preparation that all future “Virgin Galactic Astronauts” (also known as customers) will go through. The Virgin Mothership (VMS) Eve, the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft that will bring the VSS Unity to its take-off altitude, is piloted by Viring pilots CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer. As Branson said of the historic flight, it will be part of:
“I really believe that space is ours all. After more than 16 years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic is at the forefront of a new commercial space industry that will open space to mankind and change the world forever. “
“It is one thing to dream of making space more accessible to all; It’s another thing for an incredible team to work together to make that dream a reality. As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I am honored to confirm the journey of our future astronauts and to ensure that we deliver the unique customer experience that people have come to expect from Virgin. “
In the video accompanying the press release, Branson also hinted that Virgin Galactic had something big going on that he wouldn’t talk about until after the test flight was completed. “When we get back,” he said, “I’m going to announce something very exciting to give more people the chance to become astronauts. Because the room belongs to all of us. So take care of this room! “
While it’s not entirely clear what that “something” might be, it is a safe bet that Branson will announce a schedule for the start of commercial flights. For years, wealthy customers have booked tickets to fly Virgin Galactic as soon as they are operational. Alternatively, Branson may announce some kind of giveaway that will allow a lucky few to fly into space as part of the next test flight before commercial flights begin.
It’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but with up to 4 minutes of weightlessness as a prize! Personally, I am willing to bet that this latter possibility is it. Regardless of the company’s fanfare and preparations, it is clear that Richard Branson is taking this test flight very seriously. This should come as no surprise considering the extent to which Blue Origin has conveyed the importance of the New Shepard test flight.
Obviously, the race is on to see which billionaire can put their money (their huge, huge, VERSATILE money) where their mouth is. For Virgin Galactic, the window will open tomorrow to beat Bezos, but it could very well happen sometime next week. As long as it happens before Tuesday, July 20, when Bezos and his crewmates take their flight, Branson can assert some bragging rights.
This new space race is not just about what you do and when you do it. It’s about getting noticed while you are too!
Further reading: CNN, Virgin Galactic