Branson set to fly to space aboard Virgin Galactic rocket plane

Richard Branson will travel to the edge of space on Virgin Galactic test flight. Source: Reuters

LOS ANGELES: Decades after burnishing his reputation as a wealthy daredevil mogul in a series of boating and hot-air balloon expeditions, Richard Branson is poised to promote his burgeoning astro-tourism venture by launching himself to the final frontier.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holding is due on Sunday to send the company’s passenger rocket plane, the VSS Unity, on its first fully crewed test flight to the edge of space, with the British billionaire founder among the six individuals strapping in for the ride.

The gleaming white spaceplane will be borne by a twin-fuselage carrier jet dubbed VMS Eve (named for Branson’s mother) to an altitude of 50,000 feet, where Unity will be released and soar by rocket power in an almost vertical climb through the outer fringe of Earth’s atmosphere.

At the apex of its flight some 55 miles (89 km) above the New Mexico desert, the crew will experience a few minutes of weightlessness before making a gliding descent back to Earth. If all goes according to plan, the flight will last about 90 minutes and end where it began – on a runway at Spaceport America near the aptly named town of Truth or Consequences.

Virgin’s Unity 22 mission marks the 22nd test flight of the spacecraft, and the company’s fourth crewed mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere. It will be the first to carry a full complement of space travelers – two pilots and four “mission specialists,” Branson among them.

Although the mission is seen as a potential milestone in helping transform citizen rocket travel into a mainstream commercial venture, spaceflight remains an inherently hazardous endeavor. An earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.

If successful, the flight will also give Branson bragging rights to besting rival Jeff Bezos and his space company, Blue Origin, in what has been popularized as a “billionaire space race.” Bezos, founder of online retail giant Amazon.com, is slated to fly aboard Blue Origin’s suborbital rocketship, the New Shepard, later this month.

Branson’s official job on his flight is to “evaluate the private astronaut experience,” and his observations will be used to “enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers.”

READ MORE: Branson aims to make space trip on July 11, ahead of Bezos

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, along with fellow billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are competing head-to-head in the emerging business of space tourism, though Musk has a big head start.

In a Twitter exchange with Branson early on Saturday, Musk said that he would attend the launch “to wish you the best.”  SpaceX, which plans to send its first all-civilian crew (without Musk) into orbit in September, has already launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station.

The spaceplane’s two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, will control the ignition and shutoff of the ship’s rocket engine, and activate the vehicle’s “feathered” tail maneuver for re-entry.

The three other mission specialists are Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Virgin Galactic’s lead operations engineer Colin Bennett; and Sirisha Bandla, a research operations and government affairs vice president.

Branson set a new record for the fastest boat crossing of the Atlantic in 1986, a year after his initial attempt ended with a Royal Air Force helicopter rescue when his vessel capsized.

In 1987 he made a record-breaking Atlantic crossing by hot-air balloon, though again he had to be rescued from the sea. He went on to break at least two other air-balloon speed records but failed to complete any of three bids to circumnavigate the globe by balloon.

As for Sunday’s flight, Branson said this week that he is excited, “and I really don’t think there’s anything there to be scared about.” Assuming the mission goes well, Virgin has said it plans two further test flights of the spaceplane before beginning commercial service next year.