Virgin Galactic is about to rocket four people — including the company’s founder, Richard Branson — to the edge of space.
The company has flown people on its reusable, winged rocket plane, called SpaceShipTwo, three times since December 2018. But two of those flights involved only Virgin Galactic pilots. Only one of the flights carried a passenger.
On Sunday, the SpaceShipTwo plane, called VSS Unity, is set to carry the company’s first full crew more than 50 miles above the Earth.
The vehicle requires two pilots and has room for six passengers. For this journey, the pilots will be Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci, and they’ll carry Branson and his three crewmates: Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, the company’s lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, the vice president of government affairs and research.
If the flight goes as planned, Branson would be the first person to launch to space aboard his own company’s commercial vehicle. Jeff Bezos plans to do the same thing a mere nine days later.
“I can’t wait,” Branson told Today. “At that moment, we will have become astronauts. I will pinch myself and pinch myself again and again.”
Watch live as Branson and the crew fly to the edge of space
Virgin Galactic will broadcast Branson’s VSS Unity flight on Youtube. The livestream, embedded below, is set to start at 9 am ET on Sunday.
If all goes according to plan, the VSS Unity will lift off from Virgin Galactic’s facilities at Spaceport America in New Mexico aboard a mothership called VMS Eve.
The mothership, a double-bodied plane, will carry the VSS Unity about 10 miles above sea level, then drop it. The space plane must immediately fire its rocket engines, tilt almost directly upwards, and accelerate to about three times the speed of sound to reach the edge of space, about 55 miles above sea level.
There, the pilots are expected to shut off the VSS Unity’s engines and allow the plane to drift above the Earth. The four crew members, who are standing in as passengers in order to test the spaceflight experience, should feel weightless. Through the space plane’s 17 windows, they’ll be able to see the curvature of the Earth below. They’ll linger there for just a few minutes before gravity begins to pull them back down.
For the return trip, VSS Unity is designed to rotate its wings and tail booms upwards. This helps the plane brake itself against the atmosphere as it plunges back to Earth. About 10 miles above the ground — the altitude where the mothership dropped it off — the vehicle should rotate its wings back in place so it can glide to a runway landing.
Branson originally planned to ride SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space in 2014 or 2015. But Virgin Galactic had to delay those plans after its first version of the vehicle, called VSS Enterprise, broke apart mid-flight above the Mojave desert in October 2014, killing one pilot and injuring the other.
Since Virgin Galactic began testing VSS Unity in 2016, its flight record has been successful.
The company aims to start flying tourists on the space plane next year. Already, more than 700 people have signed up, including Tom Hanks, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga, Today reported.
“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” Branson said in a statement. “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.”