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5 things you should know about Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed spaceflight

Live coverage of Unity 22 mission started at 10:30 a.m. July 11

This photo provided by Virgin Galactic shows SpaceShipTwo Unity being released from the carrier mothership, VMS Eve for second successful glide flight in New Mexico on Thursday, June 25, 2020. Virgin Galactic is celebrating the second successful glide flight of its spaceship over Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. (Virgin Galactic via AP)
This photo provided by Virgin Galactic shows SpaceShipTwo Unity being released from the carrier mothership, VMS Eve for second successful glide flight in New Mexico on Thursday, June 25, 2020. Virgin Galactic is celebrating the second successful glide flight of its spaceship over Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. (Virgin Galactic via AP) (Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic launched its billionaire founder Richard Branson, three other crew members and two pilots Sunday morning to the edge of space.

The short trip to 55 miles above Earth and back marked an important milestone for the private space company as it prepares to start flying paying customers. It will put Branson in space first ahead of his competition billionaire Jeff Bezos, who plans to launch with his company, Blue Origin, nine days later.

1. The timeline

FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 file photo, Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity departs Mojave Air & Space Port in Mojave, Calif. for the final time as Virgin Galactic shifts its SpaceFlight operations to New Mexico. Virgin Galactic's spaceship VSS Unity, tucked under the wing of its special carrier aircraft, headed east from Southern California on a long-awaited ferry flight to its new home in New Mexico where it will be prepared for commercial operations carrying tourists on hops into space, the company said. (Matt Hartman via AP) (Matthew C Hartman)

Virgin Galactic targeted after 10:30 a.m. ET Sunday to take off from New Mexico’s Spaceport America. The initial target was 9 a.m., but the company said overnight weather delayed the start of flight preparations.

The company’s spaceplane SpaceShipTwo will be carried by the mothership WhiteKnightTwo, a custom-built plane, to about 50,000 feet before it separates. CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer are piloting the mothership and will land back on the runway while SpaceShipTwo continues on.

SpaceShipTwo pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci will use the spaceplane’s hybrid rocket motor to push up through the sound barrier after about six seconds. The spaceship will then reach the edge of space at about 300,000 feet above Earth, about 55 miles up.

At this point the passengers will be able to unbuckle from their seats and experience weightlessness, looking through 17 windows down on Earth. The pilots will then use the spaceship wings to glide back to the runway landing where it took off.

The whole experience lasts under an hour from take-off to landing with a few minutes for weightlessness.

2. Earning those Astronaut wings

Virgin Galactic will be making a sub-orbital spaceflight. The spaceplane reaches 55 miles above Earth during the peak altitude.

International aeronautic and astronautic federations in Europe recognize the Karman line (62 miles) as the official boundary between Earth’s upper atmosphere and space, however, NASA, the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration accept a minimum altitude of 50 miles.

The FAA created its Commercial Astronaut Wings Program to recognize crew who flew and return from that 50-mile mark. The FAA issued its first Commercial Astronaut Wings to pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie on April 1, 2004 for their flight in Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne.

[Space spat: Billionaires fight over where space starts, but does it really matter?]

Virgin’s space tourism competition Blue Origin launches its New Shepard to 62 miles up, reaching that internationally recognized space boundary.

Several of the crew and pilots involved in the mission have already earned their commercial astronaut wings.

Regardless of how high they fly, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin already are referring to their prospective clients as “astronauts.”

3. It’s not just Richard Branson’s first spaceflight

This image provided by Virgin Galactic shows, from left: Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett, Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses, Founder of Virgin Galactic Richard Branson, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations Sirisha Bandla and pilot Michael Masucci. Branson is aiming to beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos into space by nine days. Bransons company announced Thursday, July 1, 2021 that its next test flight will be July 11 and that its founder will be among the six people on board. The winged rocket ship will soar from New Mexico _ the first carrying a full crew of company employees. It will be only the fourth trip to space for Virgin Galactic. (Virgin Galactic via AP) (Virgin Galactic)

Even though the billionaire is getting the most attention, there are actually five other people who will be flying with him and they each have an important role.

SpaceShipTwo will be piloted by Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci. Four mission specialists, including Branson, will be on board VSS Unity. The other mission specialists include Beth Moses, Colin Bennett, Sirisha Bandla, all of whom work at Virgin Galactic. It will be the first spaceflight for Branson, who turns 71 this month, as well as Bennett and Bandla.

The crew onboard will use the zero-gravity time to conduct research but each member has a role during the mission.

[MORE COVERAGE: Virgin Galactic reveals spaceship cabin where paying customers will experience spaceflight in style]

Moses, Virgin Galactic Chief Astronaut Instructor, will serve as the cabin lead overseeing the test flight objectives. Bandla will handle a plant experiment from the University of Florida and Bennett will evaluate cabin equipment and procedures during the flight.

Meanwhile, Branson will be acting in the role as a Virgin Galactic “private astronaut,” experiencing the flight like their paying customers will.

“The Company will use his observations from his flight training and spaceflight experience to enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers,” the company said in a news release.

4. When will paying customers and scientists fly?

This undated photo released by Virgin Galactic shows the interior of their SpaceshipTwo Cabin during a flight. Highly detailed amenities to enhance the customer experience were shown in an online event Tuesday, July 28, 2020, revealing the cabin of the company's rocket plane, a type called SpaceShipTwo, which is undergoing testing in preparation for commercial service. There are a dozen windows for viewing, seats capable of being customized to each of six passengers and mood lighting. (Virgin Galactic via AP) (© Virgin Galactic 2020)

More than 600 have reserved seats with Virgin Galactic at $250,000 and have been waiting years to fly. The company said after this flight it plans to fly two additional flights before it begins commercial service next year.

The company is also planning for research-dedicated flights that require low gravity in space.

Virgin Galactic recently announced bioastronautics researcher Kellie Gerardi will fly as a payload specialist conducting experiments to test new health care technologies for the International Institute of Astronautical Sciences. Alan Stern, the leader of NASA’s New Horizon mission to Pluto, will also fly with Virgin Galactic under NASA’s Flight Opportunities program to conduct agency-funded research.

[READ: Virgin Galactic gets OK from FAA to launch customers to space]

5. How to watch

Virgin Galactic hasn’t provided a live stream of its previous test flights but it plans to this time with multiple options for viewing. The stream will simulcast on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and ViriginGalactic.com.

The Late Show host and comedian Stephen Colbert will host the live stream after an invite from Branson.

The live stream will include views of the liftoff and from inside the cabin, which contains 16 HD cameras.

You can also watch it embedded below:


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