Sir Richard Branson could visit space before Jeff Bezos. Virgin Galactic has announced that it will open the flight window for SpaceShipTwo Unity’s next rocket-powered test flight on July 11th, more than a week before Blue Origin’s first tourist flight is scheduled to take off on July 20th with Bezos on board. The Unity 22 mission will be the company’s fourth manned flight, but it will be the first to carry a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists in the cabin. One of those passengers is company founder Richard Branson, who will evaluate the private astronaut experience Virgin Galactic plans to offer to paying customers.
The company concluded that it was ready to launch Unity 22 after it finished analyzing data from its May 22 test flight, according to Chief Executive Officer Michael Colglazier. The company ended the rocket-powered flight in May – the first manned spaceflight by Virginia’s New Mexico-based Spaceport America – after months of delay. It was originally scheduled to launch in December 2020, but the launch didn’t happen because SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engine failed to ignite.
Now the company is ready to take another step towards commercial flights. The upcoming mission will focus on assessing the spacecraft’s cabin environment, seating comfort, weightless experience, and the views of Earth it can offer paying passengers. In addition, the conditions for carrying out research experiments in the human interest are demonstrated.
In addition to Branson and the two pilots, the other passengers are staffed by Virgin Galactic. Beth Moses, Virgin’s Chief Astronaut Instructor, will oversee the completion of test flight objectives while Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett will evaluate cabin equipment, procedures and experience. Eventually, Sirisha Bandla, Vice President for Government Affairs and Research Operations, will be responsible for conducting the human-conducted experiments on board.
Virgin will broadcast a livestream of space travel on its website, as well as on its Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages. The live stream begins on the day of the flight at 9 a.m., which may be delayed depending on the weather and technical conditions. If the mission is successful, the company intends to resume ticket sales soon and operate two additional flights before starting paid flights next year.
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