July 9 (Reuters) – Decades after solidifying his reputation as a wealthy daredevil tycoon on a series of boat and balloon expeditions, Richard Branson is set to promote his burgeoning astrotourism business in rushing to the last frontier.
Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holding Inc (SPCE.N) to send the company’s passenger rocket aircraft, VSS Unity, on Sunday for its first full-crew test flight to the edge of space with the founder on Sunday British billionaire among the six people tied for the trip.
The sparkling white spaceplane will be carried by a twin-fuselage carrier aircraft dubbed VMS Eve (named after Branson’s mother) to an altitude of 50,000 feet, where Unity will be released and take to the skies by rocket power. in an almost vertical climb through the outer fringe of Earth’s atmosphere.
At the peak of their flight some 55 miles (89 km) over the New Mexico desert, the crew will experience weightlessness for a few minutes before hovering back down to Earth.
If all goes as planned, the flight will last around 90 minutes and end where it started – on a runway at Spaceport America near the aptly named town of Truth or Consequences.
Virgin’s Unity 22 mission marks the spacecraft’s 22nd test flight and the company’s fourth crewed mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
But it will be the first to carry a full complement of space travelers – two pilots and four “mission specialists”, Branson among them.
MILESTONES AND ADVERTISING
While the mission is seen as a potential step to help turn citizen rocket travel into a mainstream commercial enterprise, spaceflight remains an inherently dangerous enterprise.
An earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over the Mojave Desert in California in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.
If successful, Sunday’s flight will also give Branson the bragging rights of beating rival Jeff Bezos and his space company, Blue Origin, in what has been popularized as a “billionaire space race.” Bezos, founder of online retail giant Amazon.com, is expected to fly aboard Blue Origin’s suborbital rocket, the New Shepard, later this month.
Branson’s official job on his flight is to “evaluate the experience of private astronauts,” and his observations will be used to “improve the travel of all future astronaut customers,” according to Virgin press documents.
But Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for Virginia-based consulting firm Teal Group, said the Branson and Bezos rides were each “a bit of a publicity stunt.”
âIf they are successful, their businesses will be taken more seriously,â Caceres said. “There are a lot of multimillionaires in the world who would love to go on an adventure, provided they consider it relatively safe.”
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, along with billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, compete in the emerging space tourism industry, although Musk has a good head start.
In a Twitter exchange with Branson early on Saturday, Musk said he would attend the launch “to wish you the best.” It wasn’t immediately clear whether Musk would be present at the launch site or join online.
SpaceX, which plans to send its first fully civilian crew (without Musk) into orbit in September, has already launched numerous payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station.
Branson, 70, insists there are plenty of requests from wealthy future citizen astronauts to take the tour, and that he had no intention of trying to outshine Bezos.
‘NOT A RACE’
âIt’s honestly not a race,â Branson told Reuters in an interview earlier this week. âIf it’s a race, it’s a race to produce some wonderful spaceships that can get a lot more people into space. And I think that’s our two goals.â
The two space plane pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, will control the ignition and shutdown of the ship’s rocket motor, and activate the vehicle’s âfeatheredâ tail maneuver for re-entry.
The other three mission specialists are Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, Chief Operating Engineer of Virgin Galactic; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of research operations and government affairs.
The Virgin brand, including the airline and the former Branson record company, has long been associated with the derring-do exploits of its flamboyant founder. Branson set a new record for the fastest boat crossing the Atlantic in 1986, a year after his first attempt with a Royal Air Force helicopter rescue ended when his ship capsized.
In 1987 he made a record-breaking Atlantic balloon crossing, but again he had to be rescued from the sea. He then broke at least two more hot-air balloon speed records, but only managed to complete any of the three offers to go around the world in a balloon.
As for Sunday’s flight, Branson said this week he was excited, “and I really don’t think there is anything to be afraid of.”
Assuming the mission goes well, Virgin said it plans two more test flights of the spaceplane before starting commercial service next year.
The company said it has received more than 600 flight reservations, priced at around $ 250,000 per ticket, but ultimately hopes to reduce the cost of each seat to $ 40,000.
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Kevin Fogarty in Washington and Shubham Kalia; Editing by Daniel Wallis and William Mallard
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