Richard Branson will fly on SpaceShipTwo this weekend. Welcome to the New (Edge of) Space Race!

It’s no secret that the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace) has become immensely lucrative in recent years, nor the fact that it has become intensely competitive as a result. To illustrate, one needs to look no further than the top three NewSpace companies in the world right now: SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic. Between these three companies, all founded by billionaires with similar visions, a new space race has begun.

In recent months, the race has intensified as Jeff Bezos announced that he would be going to space on the inaugural flight of the New Shepard rocket. In response, Virgin Galactic founder and CEO Richard Branson announced earlier this week that he would fly aboard the VSS Unity as it makes its latest test flight. If successful, this mission – scheduled for Sunday, July 11th (weather permitting) – will see Branson become the first billionaire to go to space.

In the past, Branson has said that he would fly aboard his spacecraft once the company began conducting crewed flights. Until recently, company spokespersons stated Branson’s flight would take place later this year after another crewed test flight took place. But when Bezos announced his plans early last month, there were rumblings that Branson was thinking about expediting the timetable.

According to their latest updates, Virgin Galactic plans to launch the “Unity 22” mission on Sunday, July 11th, in the early morning hours. The spacecraft will take off with its carrier aircraft (WhiteKnightTwo) from Spaceport America in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin of New Mexico. This event will also be shared via a global livestream, which can be watched on Virgin Galactic.com and the company’s Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook channels.

Famed comedian Stephen Colbert, who has interviewed Branson several times on his late-night shows, has been confirmed as the host. The event will also feature the Grammy-nominated singer Khalid, who will be debuting a new song of hers at the landing site after the test flight is complete. According to Virgin Galactic’s official press release, the purpose of flight will be threefold:

  • Evaluating the commercial customer cabin with a full crew, including the cabin environment, seat comfort, the weightless experience, and the views of Earth that the spaceship delivers – all to ensure every moment of the astronaut’s journey maximizes the wonder and awe created by space travel
  • Demonstrating the conditions for conducting human-tended research experiments
  • Confirming the training program at Spaceport America supports the spaceflight experience

Chief Pilot Dave Mackay and Pilot Michael Masucci will fly the VSS Unity and its crew for this historic mission. As Virgin Galactic also indicated, Branson will also be accompanied by three mission specialists who will perform specific tasks during the flight. First, there’s aerospace engineer Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor who flew aboard the VSS Unity during a 2019 test flight.

Next up is Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003), the company’s lead operations engineer, who will be there to monitor the cabin equipment and help evaluate the overall experience. Then there’s Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004), Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research, who will be on board to monitor the mission’s science payload. This will consist of a research project from the University of Florida to evaluate handheld fixation tubes – vessels commonly used in microgravity experiments.

Richard Branson (Astronaut 001), will be tasked with evaluating the “private astronaut experience,” and will be given the same training and preparation that all future “Virgin Galactic astronauts” (aka. customers) will undergo. The Virgin Mothership (VMS) Eve, the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft that will carry the VSS Unity to its launch altitude, will be piloted by Viring pilots CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer. As Branson said of the historic flight he will be part of:

“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.”

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

In the video that accompanied the press release, Branson also hinted that Virgin Galactic had something big in the works that he would only talk about after the test flight was complete. “When we return,” he said, “I will announce something very exciting to give more people a chance to become astronauts. Because space does belong to us all. So watch this space!”

While it’s not entirely clear what this “something” might be, it’s a safe bet that Branson will be announcing a timetable for when commercial flights will begin. For years, wealthy customers have been booking tickets to fly with Virgin Galactic once they get up and running. Alternatively, Branson may be announcing a giveaway of sorts, where a few lucky people get to fly to space as part of the next test flight before commercial flights begin.

It’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but with up to 4 minutes of weightlessness as the prize! Personally, I am willing to bet it’s this latter possibility. Regardless, it is clear from the fanfare and the company’s preparations that Richard Branson is taking this test flight very seriously. This should come as no surprise, given the extent to which Blue Origin has gone to convey the significance of the New Shepard test flight.

Clearly, the race is on to see which billionaire can put their money (their vast, vast, VAST money) where their mouth is. For Virgin Galactic, the window to beat Bezos to the punch opens tomorrow, but could very well happen sometime next week. As long as it happens before Tuesday, July 20th, when Bezos and his fellow crew members are scheduled to make their flight, Branson will be able to claim some bragging rights.

In this new Space Race, it’s not just about what you do and when you do it. It’s about being noticed while you’re doing it too!

Further Reading: CNN, Virgin Galactic

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today's Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.

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