Virgin-founder Richard Branson heads for space Sunday


Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic and Virgin Group, is set to fly to the edge of space Sunday. Credit: Virgin Galactic

After nearly two decades of overly optimistic forecasts, technical challenges, a tragic setback and a determined recovery, Richard Branson, the globe-trotting media mogul and founder of Virgin Galactic, plans to rocket into space Sunday, beating fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos to the punch by nine days.

In a high-stakes display of confidence in Virgin’s sleek rocketplane, Branson wants to get an owner’s understanding of what his company is offering and in the process, convince potential customers that purely commercial, non-government flights to space are worth the initially astronomical cost.

And the risk.

“I believe that commercial space travel can become a profitable enterprise, but that is not the point,” he wrote in his most recent autobiography. “If I had merely wanted to make more money, I could have invested in far safer, more reliable sectors. I believe that putting our faith in space travel serves, quite literally, a higher purpose.”

Commercial spaceflight, he wrote, will “expand our understanding of the universe” and “improve countless lives back on Earth.”

“In the decades to come, we could be a precursor to further space exploration, which could lead to the colonization of other planets and the eventual endurance of the human race,” he concluded. “There can be no greater challenge.”

If all goes well, the flight will get underway at Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, shortly after 9 a.m. EDT Sunday when Virgin’s four-engine “mothership”, the VMS Eve, takes off and carries the VSS Unity spaceplane to an altitude of about 45,000 feet.

Strapped into Unity, Branson, two company pilots and three Virgin crewmates then will be released for a rocket-powered climb to the lower reaches of space and a gliding descent back to Spaceport America’s 12,000-foot-long runway. Virgin plans to provide a live webcast starting at 9 a.m. EDT Sunday.

Virgin Galactic and Bezos’ Blue Origin are competing head to head in the emerging space tourism marketplace, both offering short up-and-down rides just above the aerodynamically discernible atmosphere for a few minutes of weightlessness and spectacular views Earth and the deep black of outer space.

Along with wealthy space tourists, both companies expect to fly researchers and experiments from government agencies and companies developing or testing space technology.

NASA has already launched experiment packages aboard both spacecraft and the Italian air force plans to launch researchers aboard a Virgin flight once commercial operations get underway.

Neither company has said how much it will cost for a ride to space, but tickets are expected to run in the neighborhood of $250,000 to $500,000. Some 600 enthusiasts have put down refundable deposits for flights aboard Virgin’s spaceplane, many of them reserving seats shortly after the company’s founding in 2004.

“If I weigh up everything I have ever taken on, this is the biggest task, and if we can pull it off, it will be my proudest achievement,” Branson wrote.

This infographic released by Virgin Galactic describes the typical flight profile for a SpaceShipTwo mission. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin won the initial race to space with people on board on Dec. 13, 2018, when VSS Unity carried two pilots out of the atmosphere. Two more piloted test flights to space were launched in 2019 and this past May 22.

Two weeks earlier, Blue Origin carried out its 15th successful New Shepard launch and landing, all of them unpiloted. On May 5, the 60th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s flight to become the first American in space, the company announced its next test flight, on July 20, would carry its first crew.

Then, on June 7, two weeks after Virgin completed its third piloted test flight with two company pilots, Bezos announced that he planned to blast off on the July flight of New Shepard, along with his brother Mark and the winner of an on-line auction.

“You see the Earth from space that changes you, it changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity. It’s one Earth,” Bezos said in an Instagram post announcing his flight. “I want to go on this flight because it’s the thing I’ve wanted to do all my life. It’s an adventure. It’s a big deal for me.”

The as-yet-unidentified auction winner went on to bid $28 million for the opportunity to join Bezos and his brother. Blue Origin then announced that aviation pioneer Wally Funk, 82, who was barred from NASA’s initially all-male astronaut corps, had been invited to join the crew.

Later that same day, Virgin announced that Branson planned to blast off on July 11 along with five company employees. The launching will mark the first with non-professional “passengers” on board giving the British tycoon billionaire bragging rights in the commercial space arena.

“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” he said in a statement. “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.”

He said he was “honored to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.”

And Branson insists he’s not in any sort of “space race” with Bezos or SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

“There is certainly professional rivalry between us, but also enormous respect and a shared desire to shake up the space industry,” he wrote in his autobiography. “A new generation of entrepreneurs is trying to bring innovation back to the stars.”

Bezos has had no public comment on Virgin’s sudden decision to schedule Branson’s flight ahead of Blue Origin’s.

But the company posted a tweet Friday pointing out that New Shepard passengers will reach altitudes higher than 62 miles, the internationally recognized “boundary” of space — the Kármán line — while Virgin Galactic customers will not.

Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane soars to just above 50 miles, the boundary long recognized by the U.S. Air Force, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration as the point where a vehicle is no longer affected by aerodynamics and behaves as if in a vacuum.

“From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin tweeted. “For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line.”

A second tweet added “New Shepard flies above both boundaries. One of the many benefits of flying with Blue Origin.”

Joining Branson aboard the VSS Unity spaceplane will be company pilots Dave MacKay and Michael Masucci, along with Virgin’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, operations engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, Virgin’s vice president for government affairs and research operations.

Mackay flew two earlier sub-orbital test flights while Masucci and Moses each have one previous flight to their credits.

Moses is married to Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses, a former shuttle integration manager for NASA, while Bandla will be the first Indian-American to fly in space since astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who lost her life in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster.

The upcoming flight will be Virgin’s fourth piloted sub-orbital spaceflight, all of them test missions, and the 22nd flight of VSS Unity overall. Two more test flights are believed to be planned before commercial operations commence.

Including NASA’s first two Mercury missions, 13 X-15 test flights above 50 miles and three 2004 flights by a precursor to Virgin’s spaceplane, Branson’s flight will be the 23rd sub-orbital launch since 1961.

While Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin both plan to offer rides to sub-orbital space, the companies chose very different approaches to the challenge of safely launching passengers out of the discernible atmosphere.

Bezos’ Blue Origin chose a more traditional approach, designing a fully automated single-stage, reusable rocket powered by a company-designed hydrogen-burning BE-3 engine. The rocket, or propulsion module, is designed to boost a roomy crew capsule carrying up to six passengers to altitudes above 62 miles.

Blue Origin customers will experience about three times the normal force of gravity during the climb to sub-orbital space, along with about three minutes of weightlessness as the capsule arcs over the top of the trajectory and then descends toward touchdown suspended below three parachutes.

File photo of ground teams at Spaceport America in New Mexico preparing for a previous test flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Built into the capsule is an Aerojet Rocketdyne solid-propellant rocket motor designed to quickly propel the capsule away from a malfunctioning booster. The abort system has been successfully tested three times in flight.

The capsule also features six of the largest windows ever built into a spacecraft, each one measuring 28.8 inches wide and 42.7 inches tall.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft offers an altogether different sort of user experience based on legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan’s concept for a winged spaceplane.

A smaller two-man version of the spacecraft won the $10 million Ansari X-prize in 2004, completing two trips to space and back within two weeks. Branson purchased rights to the design and scaled it up to carry two pilots and up to six passengers. Because of weight issues, it is initially carrying four passengers at a time.

Instead of launching from the ground, carrying the fuel needed to climb out of the dense lower atmosphere, Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane is carried aloft by a twin-fuselage carrier jet — VMS Eve — and then released at around 45,000 feet.

Using a hybrid rocket motor burning solid propellant with liquid nitrous oxide, the spaceplane quickly shoots away below the carrier jet, pitching up into a near vertical trajectory. After shutdown, the spacecraft coasts to apogee, providing about three minutes of weightlessness along the way.

Using a Rutan innovation known as “feathering,” VSS Unity’s wings and tail fins are designed to pivot upward by 60 degrees once out of the thick lower atmosphere.

As the spacecraft descends, the feathered wing-and-tail booms generate enormous drag like a badminton shuttlecock, reducing re-entry speeds and heating while acting to put the ship in the proper orientation without pilot intervention.

Once back down into the discernible atmosphere at an altitude of about 55,000 feet, the wings pivot back down parallel with the fuselage, the ship becomes a glider and the pilots guide it to touchdown at Spaceport America’s 12,000-foot-long runway.

An earlier Virgin spaceplane, the VSS Enterprise, suffered a catastrophic failure during a test flight in 2014. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the co-pilot unlocked the feather mechanism too soon and the ship was torn apart by aerodynamic stresses.

The co-pilot was killed and the pilot, who was somehow blown free of the disintegrating craft, was seriously injured. Virgin Galactic added safeguards to prevent a premature feather deployment and the system worked flawlessly ever since.

Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane and Blue Origin’s booster-capsule offer advantages and disadvantages.

Blue Origin’s spacecraft is fully automated — no pilots or control systems are on board — and it boasts a “full envelope” abort system capable of propelling a crew to safety at any point from the launch pad to space.

In addition, Blue Origin offers spectacular views through its bay windows and it will fly slightly higher, above the 62-mile Kármán line, while Virgin’s spaceplane initially, at least, will fly up to 10 miles lower.

While not equipped with a stand-alone abort system, the hybrid motor in Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane can be shut down on command if sensors detect any sort of issue. And while the spacecraft features smaller windows, there are more of them — 12 in the passenger cabin and five in the cockpit.

Perhaps the most striking difference in the passenger experience is the flight duration. Blue Origin’s New Shepard takes off, soars to space and lands in about 10 minutes.

Virgin customers, strapped into the VSS Unity, will first be carried up to launch altitude by the VMS Eve carrier jet and then released for the rocket ride to space and a gliding descent to Earth. Flight duration from takeoff to landing is an hour or more.