Welcome to the space race, billionaire edition. Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, is scheduled to take off into space on Sunday, if the weather and technical controls permit.
If the mission is successful, Branson will beat competitor Jeff Bezos, who recently stepped down as CEO of Amazon, by days. Bezos’ own rocket company Blue Origin plans to launch him into space on July 20th.
Branson will be launched from Sierra County, New Mexico and Bezos from a desert location north of Van Horn, Texas, which is over 160 km east of El Paso.
Here’s what we know about both space travel and its potential impact on commercial space travel.
This is how you see Branson’s space flight
A live stream of the flight from VSS Unity is scheduled to begin on Sunday at 9 a.m. ET. It is broadcast on Virgin Galactic’s website and on social media platforms. TheLas Cruces Sun-News, part of the USA TODAY Network, will also broadcast the stream online.
Branson flies VSS Unity plane, Bezos launches New Shepard rocket
The two space launches will take place in very different spacecraft. Branson will fly Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, a spacecraft that will take off from the air after being brought to a great altitude by the VMS Eve aircraft.
From there, the Unity will fly to the edge of space using rocket power. Branson becomes part of a six-person crew consisting of two pilots and four mission specialists.
Meanwhile, Bezos will visit space in a capsule on a rocket.
When Blue Origin’s New Shepard launches from West Texas, the crew pod will separate from the missile just three minutes after launch. A minute later, those on board reach apogee – the flight point furthest from Earth.
In flight, the capsule will pass the Kármán Line, a 62 mile high boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space in one flight.
That is a higher peak than what Virgin Galactic has achieved so far. In its easy test on May 22nd, pilots Dave Mackay and CJ Sturckow reached an altitude of 55.45 miles.
This means that even if Branson flies first, Bezos could still claim to have hit the higher limit. The state space agency NASA regards the limit of space as 80 kilometers above sea level, while many agencies internationally use the Kármán line as the limit.
After reaching the apogee, the pilotless Blue Origin capsule returns to Earth with its passengers and parachutes to land near the launch site. The rocket is also supposed to land itself.
On board will be Bezos, his brother Mark, Bezos’ guest of honor Wally Funk and a passenger to be named, who won a $ 29.7 million ticket offer at a charity auction in June.
Proceeds from the $ 4.8 million high bid will go to Club for the Future, a company-sponsored foundation promoting science, technology, engineering, and math.
How long will Bezos and Branson be in space?
Neither the VSS Unity nor the New Shepard capsule can reach the speeds required for orbital flight, but rather are aimed at suborbital flights that give passengers a brief opportunity to view the earth from above and experience weightlessness.
After taking off from its carrier aircraft, the Unity flies to the edge of space. On its test flight on May 22nd, it reached a speed of March 3rd, or three times the speed of sound. The passengers experience weightlessness for about 4 minutes before sliding back onto the ground.
From takeoff to landing, the Bezos flight will reach space in around four minutes. Once there, passengers and crew can take off their seat belts for about three minutes to experience weightlessness before returning to their home planet.
Why does Branson go into space? A child’s call helped launch Virgin Galactic.
Have Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic conducted spacecraft test flights?
Since Bezos started Blue Origin in 2000 and Branson launched Virgin Galactic in 2004, both companies have had their share of success and operational risk.
Both companies have developed new technology to advance the development of spacecraft the way they will both fly. But it wasn’t all smooth.
In 2014, an earlier prototype of Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane, the VSS Enterprise, crashed over California’s Mojave Desert during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.
A recent book by New York magazine journalist Nicholas Schmidle revealed that a subsequent test flight in 2019 posed a potentially fatal safety hazard when a seal peeling off a stabilizer attached to the aircraft’s wing.
Last December, a test flight was safely canceled after an on-board computer lost contact with a rocket motor.
The company’s third successful manned flight took place on May 22nd and took off for the first time from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico, the base of Virgin Galactic’s operations.
New Shepard has now flown 15 successful test flights, with the exception of one booster that crashed during a test in 2015.
None of his previous tests included passengers.
How soon can non-billionaires afford a space flight?
Virgin Galactic said Branson’s flight would “test the private astronaut experience”. The company plans to resume ticket sales for a 90-minute journey soon after Branson’s flight. Approximately 600 reservations have been made for rates up to $ 250,000. Blue Origin is reportedly set to charge $ 200,000.
Virgin Galactic hopes to launch commercial flights with full revenue in 2022.
“Neither of us will be able to build enough spacecraft to meet demand,” Branson told Reuters.
Branson also said he doesn’t expect prices to drop for another decade, and even by then, those looking for a ride-on ticket could pay as much as $ 40,000.
However, the business model is not limited to expensive rides. Virgin has contracts with NASA and other agencies to fly research payloads and train Italian Air Force personnel to become astronauts. Virgin is also involved in research and development for supersonic air travel on Earth.
Money:Companies to watch as a new, more corporate-centric space age emerges