Fourth of July weekend could include some extra fireworks this year.
Updated with statement from Virgin Galactic on June 8, 2021 at 10:53 a.m. PDT.
by Douglas Messier
It looks like Richard Branson could beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos to space next month.
Virgin Galactic is working on a plan to send Branson on a suborbital flight aboard the VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane over the July 4 holiday weekend, according to a source who requested anonymity. The flight is contingent upon obtaining an operator’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Branson’s flight would take place about two weeks before Bezos, his brother Mark and the winner of an online auction are scheduled to board Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle for a suborbital flight on July 20. It will be the first crewed flight of New Shepard, which has flown 15 times with no one aboard.
“We are in the process of analyzing the data from our successful May 22nd flight. As previously announced, we expect to complete the final test flights this summer through to early fall. At this time, we have not determined the date of our next flight. An objective from the last flight was to collect data to be used for the final two verification reports that are required as part of the current FAA commercial reusable spacecraft operator’s license,” a Virgin Galactic spokesman said in a statement released on Tuesday.
The source said Virgin Galactic formulated the plan as a response to Blue Origin’s May 5 announcement of the July 20 flight. Virgin Galactic’s planning started prior to Blue Origin announcement on Monday that Jeff and Mark Bezos would join the auction winner on the flight.
Blue Origin’s May 5 announcement kicked off a five-week auction for an open seat on the flight that is set to conclude with live bidding on Saturday, June 12. The current high bid is
$2.8 $3.5 million.
Before it can fly Branson, Virgin Galactic must obtain a commercial reusable spacecraft operator’s license from the FAA. The license would allow Virgin Galactic to fly its billionaire founder as the company’s first spaceflight participant. Under its current launch license, Virgin Galactic is limited to flying employees as test subjects on a non-commercial basis.
Virgin Galactic, which bills itself as the world’s first “spaceline,” has submitted the final two verification reports required for the operator’s license. The company expects the FAA to issue the license prior to the flight in early July, the source said.
Engineers obtained the data for the reports from a May 22 flight test from Spaceport America in New Mexico. It was VSS Unity’s third suborbital flight above 50 miles and the vehicle’s first powered test in 27 months.
Branson’s flight during the Fourth of July weekend is dependent upon VSS Unity and its VMS Eve WhiteKnightTwo mother ship being ready to fly in time. The turnaround time for a July 4 flight would be 44 days. There were 72 days between SpaceShipTwo’s first and second suborbital flights in December 2018 and February 2019.
If Branson flies before Bezos, there will likely be a debate over whether he actually reached space. The FAA recognizes 50 miles (80.4 km) as the boundary of space. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale – the keeper of aviation and space records – considers the boundary of space to be located at 100 km (62.1 miles), which is known as the Karman line.
VSS Unity has made three flights above 50 km, but it reportedly cannot reach the Karman line. New Shepard has exceeded 100 km (62.1 miles) on 12 of its 15 flights; the three other flights exceeded 50 miles (80.4 km).
Virgin Galactic has rearranged its flight test program in order to fly Branson next month. The company had planned to first fly four people to test the experience for future passengers. Branson would have taken the next flight to provide his own evaluation. The final test would include three Italian Air Force officers who would train for a future spaceflight and conduct experiments.
Virgin Galactic officials said they expect to complete the remaining three flight tests by late summer or early fall. At that point, VSS Unity and VMS Eve would undergo four months of upgrades before beginning commercial space tourism flights early next year.
A second SpaceShipTwo, VSS Imagine, is scheduled to begin flight tests later this year. It is expected to join VSS Unity and VMS Eve in flying tourists and researchers in 2022.
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