Virgin Galactic will broadcast the flight of its founder, Richard Branson, as the billionaire soars into space on Sunday (July 11).
The 70-year-old Branson and the rest of his Unity 22 crew will depart from Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo vehicle. The live broadcast will start at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT), according to the company’s Twitter feed. You’ll be able to watch the broadcast live on this page, the Space.com homepage and directly from Virgin Galactic.
Virgin Galactic has not yet released key timing milestones of the flight. Sometime on Sunday morning, VSS Unity will take off beneath the wings of its carrier aircraft, a plane known as VMS Eve. At an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), Eve will drop Unity and the space plane will make its own way to suborbital space. Eve and Unity will both come in for landings back at Spaceport America.
Based on past Unity flights, Sunday’s mission will last about 90 minutes in total, and the “weightless” phase — when the ship reaches the top of its suborbital path — will last about four minutes.
Branson’s fellow passengers will include Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, Virgin Galactic lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, the vice president of government affairs and research operations at the company. VSS Unity will be piloted by Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, with C.J. Sturckow and Kelly Latimer piloting VMS Eve.
If all goes to plan, Branson is expected to achieve spaceflight only nine days before another company, Blue Origin, notches a similar milestone with its New Shepard suborbital vehicle. Blue Origin expects to send its chief — Jeff Bezos, the billionaire Amazon founder who recently resigned as the e-shopping giant’s CEO at age 57 — into space on July 20, along with a small crew.
Bezos’ flight will come on the 52nd anniversary of the first crewed moon landing, that of Apollo 11, in 1969. Branson has said in interviews that he was inspired to go to space as a young man after watching the moonwalkers’ mission. More recently, Branson denied that he and Bezos are in competition to get to space first; Bezos has remained largely silent on the matter.
Technically speaking, whether a successful flight will actually reach space depends on the definition you use. SpaceShipTwo flights typically fly slightly below the Kármán line, the 62-mile (100 kilometers) altitude mark recognized by many people as the boundary of space. But VSS Unity has already flown three crewed test missions above 50 miles (80 km), the demarcation line recognized by NASA, the U.S. military and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
Virgin Galactic has been aiming to bring tourists into space since its foundation in 2004, while Blue Origin has been trying for the same after its foundation four years earlier. The SpaceShipOne vehicle, on which Virgin Galactic based the design of SpaceShipTwo, flew 62.5 miles (100 km) above Earth’s surface twice in 2004 to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize for repeated flights in a privately developed, reusable spacecraft.
Unity 22 will be Virgin Galactic’s fourth crewed spaceflight, while Bezos will be aboard the first crewed spaceflight for Blue Origin (though New Shepard has aced more than a dozen uncrewed suborbital test flights). The most recently stated price for a Virgin Galactic seat was $250,000, and more than 700 people have put down a deposit, company representatives have said.
Blue Origin has not yet released its per-seat pricing, although a so-far anonymous auction winner paid $28 million to fly to space on July 20 with Bezos, his brother Mark and Mercury 13 aviator Wally Funk.
Visit Space.com Sunday, July 11, for complete coverage of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo launch with Richard Branson.
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.