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
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
Sorry you can’t join us this time, but we’re going to livestream the launch on Sunday, and I’d be honoured if you’d host that for us! #Unity22— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 8, 2021
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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