Richard Branson to Fly Suborbital Aboard SpaceShipTwo on July 11 — 9 Days Before Rival Jeff Bezos’ Planned Spaceflight

Richard Branson wears Virgin Galactic’s “unpressurized spacesuit”, aka, flight suit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

As ParabolicArc reported exclusively on June 7, Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, will attempt a suborbital flight aboard a SpaceShipTwo vehicle before rival billion Jeff Bezos boards Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft on July 20.

Virgin Galactic said Branson will join two pilots and three company employees on SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on July 11 for a flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico. If the schedule holds, Branson would beat Bezos into suborbital space by nine days, and become the first billionaire to fly to space on his company’s own space vehicle.

Branson’s July 11th flight will be about a week behind the original schedule. ParabolicArc reported that Virgin Galactic had been aiming to fly the British-born billionaire over the Fourth of July weekend. Given Branson’s flight was originally forecast to take place in 2007, that is probably the shortest slip since the billionaire announced the program nearly 17 years ago in September 2004.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently granted Virgin Galactic a license to carry passengers (aka., spaceflight participants) on a commercial basis. The company previously had approval to carry company employees in the cabin as test subjects.

Branson was originally scheduled to fly only after four Virgin Galactic employees flew first to evaluate the passenger experience. Virgin Galactic moved Branson’s flight up after Jeff Bezos announced in early May that he would be flying aboard New Shepard on July 20.

Bezos will be flying with: his brother, Mark Bezos; female aviation pioneer Wally Funk, who was one of the Mercury 13; and the as-yet unidentified winner of an online auction who is paying $29.68 million for a seat on New Shepard.

Branson’s SpaceShipTwo launch will be a flight test. In a press release, the company said the flight has three objectives: evaluating the customer cabin experience with all four seats filled; demonstrating conditions for conducting human-tended experiments; and confirming the training program for future spaceflight participants.

Branson will be joined in the passenger cabin will be three Virgin Galactic employees: chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, who will serve as cabin lead an test director; lead operations engineer Colin Bennett; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.

“Bennett will evaluate cabin equipment, procedures, and experience during both the boost phase and in the weightless environment,” the company said. “Bandla will be evaluating the human-tended research experience, using an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes that will be activated at various points in the flight profile.”

Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci will pilot VSS Unity. CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer will fly the VMS Eve mothership, which will drop SpaceShipTwo over the New Mexico desert from an altitude of 45,000 to 50,000 feet.

It will be VSS Unity‘s 22nd flight test, the 11th powered flight of the SpaceShipTwo program, and the fourth suborbital test involving a full 60-second burn of the spacecraft’s hybrid motor. It will also be the first SpaceShipTwo flight with a full crew of two pilots and four passengers.

For the first time, Virgin Galactic will livestream a flight test on its website, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The webcast is expected to begin at 9 a.m. EDT/7 a.m. MDT on July 11.

Branson’s flight might not be without controversy. VSS Unity has yet to demonstrate the ability to reach 100 km (62.1 miles), which the keeper of air sports records, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), considers the boundary of space. The vehicle has flown to 55.5 miles (89.3 km), which is above the 50 mile altitude the FAA says is the boundary of space.

A source has told ParabolicArc that VSS Unity can’t reach 100 km, which is also known as the Karman line. If that proves accurate, Bezos is likely to congratulate Branson and Virgin Galactic on the flight, but maintain that they still haven’t reached space yet.

Following Branson’s flight, Virgin Galactic is planning two additional tests later this year. VSS Unity and VMS Eve will then undergo about four months of modifications and upgrades before the company begins commercial suborbital flights in 2022.

“Our next flight—the 22nd flight test for VSS Unity and our first fully crewed flight test—is a testament to the dedication and technical brilliance of our entire team, and I’d like to extend a special thank you to our pilots and mission specialists, each of whom will be performing important work,” said Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier.” Tapping into Sir Richard’s expertise and long history of creating amazing customer experiences will be invaluable as we work to open the wonder of space travel and create awe-inspiring journeys for our customers.”

About 600 people have put down deposits on SpaceShipTwo flights, some as long ago as 2005. Early reservation holders have tickets costing $200,000; the price as raised to $250,000 in 2013. Virgin Galactic officials have said prices will be even higher

Despite the astronomical prices and short stay in space (~3-5 minutes of weightlessness), Branson struck a populist note.

“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us. 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. “It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality. As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honoured to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.”