Virgin Galactic plans to complete its first full-crew space test flight on Sunday, and company co-founder Richard Branson will be on board. This starting shot for commercial space tourism on a short excursion, in which Virgin Galactic wants to participate, can also be followed in the live stream. The mission is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. Central European Summer Time.
Into space at Mach 3 – depending on the definition of the limit
A carrier aircraft is taking off from Spaceport America in the US state of New Mexico and has docked the rocket-powered space glider VSS Unity. There are two pilots and three crew members on board, plus Richard Branson. This test mission, called “Unity 22”, is intended to simulate a tourist space excursion with full crew for the first time – later four paying passengers will be seated. Most recently, Virgin Galactic completed a test flight again in May of this year after a break of more than two years.
The approximate sequence: the carrier aircraft ascends to a height of just over 13 kilometers in a good 50 minutes’ flight. There the space glider disengages and ignites its rocket engine for 60 seconds. In this minute it rises at more than three times the speed of sound to an altitude of 90 kilometers. Although this height is above the US definition of the space limit of 50 miles (80.5 km), it is below the internationally recognized limit of 100 km. After a few minutes, the glider automatically returns to Spaceport America.
Virgin Galactic has also set up a countdown on their website. Initially, 3 p.m. CEST was announced, but now the counter states 4.30 p.m. as the new time. The live stream can be followed on Youtube. American talk show host Steven Colbert will comment on the event.
Billionaire rivals in competition
Branson’s participation came as a bit of a surprise: The British entrepreneur and billionaire had actually only wanted to board the next test flight. But with the date July 11th, he is ahead of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He had announced that on July 20, his company’s Blue Origin rocket would also fly into space (and reach an altitude of 100 km). Branson had rejected the competition with Bezos as the reason for the early flight, but the shortened periods between the test flights had also drawn criticism.