Looking to get ahead of Jeff Bezos as the owner of the first rocket company to go to space, Richard Branson, the British billionaire who founded the Milky Way of Virgin companies, announced late on Wednesday night. The year that he will be a member of the crew on the next test flight of the Virgin Galactic Spacecraft.
That flight is scheduled to take off on July 11 from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
“The team was ready, so they asked Richard if he was ready to go,” said Aleanna Crane, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of communications. “It was a big day. It was a very interesting day. “
Mr. Branson would be in a position to claim bragging rights in the burgeoning private spaceflight business. Companies including Virgin Galactic and Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin are vying to roll out paying passengers on orbital and suborbital trips in the coming years. While the first rides will be expensive, the expectation is that fares will decrease over time as the market matures.
Mr Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 to offer short space tourism flights to the edge of space and he has long said he would be a passenger on the first commercial flight. But development of the SpaceShipTwo — a winged rocket that flies to an altitude of more than 50 miles — has taken years longer than Mr. Branson expected. The failures included the crash of the first SpaceShipTwo aircraft, VSS Enterprise, in October 2014 during a test flight, killing one of the two pilots.
In 2019, Virgin Galactic became a publicly traded company, although Mr Branson’s Virgin Group remains the largest shareholder, with a 24% stake.
The most recent engine test flight, in May, was the company’s first from New Mexico. Previously, development and testing of the spacecraft took place in Mojave, Calif.
Ms. Crane said the final flight was so flawless that the team decided to test the experience on board. “Who better to test the full cabin experience than Richard Branson?” she speaks. “He’s flying as a mission specialist, and he has the same role as the rest of the crew.”
The ship will carry three other Virgin Galactic employees in cabin seats in addition to the two pilots ahead.
“The dream of making spaces more accessible to all is one thing,” Branson said in a statement. “It’s another thing for an incredible team to come together to make that dream come true.”
The company plans to broadcast the flight starting at 9 a.m. ET on July 11. The SpaceShipTwo rocket, dubbed Unity, will be carried by an aircraft called White Knight Two to an altitude of 50,000 feet before being dropped. Unity’s engine will then ignite, taking it up to higher than 50 miles.
At the top of the arc, passengers will hover for about four minutes before the space plane re-enters the atmosphere and glides to a landing runway.
If all goes according to plan, Branson will make his flight nine days before Bezos, the Amazon founder, puts on the New Shepard capsule built by his rocket company Blue Origin. New Shepard has flown to the edge of space 15 times but has yet to carry a human. It’s fully automatic, without a pilot.
Billionaires like Branson, Mr. Bezos and Elon Musk are pioneers in a new age of commercial space travel, accompanied by chatter – sometimes playful, sometimes disdain – about Whose company is better?
On Wednesday, during an appearance on CNBC, Mr Branson was asked if he was trying to beat Mr. Bezos into space. “Jeff who?” Mr. Branson replied bluntly before laughing.
This comment echoes what Mr Musk once made in an interview with the BBC.
Even if Mr. Branson launched first, Mr. Bezos could still argue that he went to space and Mr. Branson did not. SpaceShipTwo doesn’t quite reach the 62-mile altitude commonly considered the edge of spaceflight, while New Shepard passes that altitude, also known as the Karman line.
“We wish him a great and safe flight, but they weren’t flying on the Karman line and it was a very different experience,” Bob Smith, chief executive officer of Blue Origin, said in a statement. by email.
However, the United States Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration put the boundary lower, at 50 miles. The FAA has issued astronaut wings to Virgin Galactic crew members who have flown on previous test flights.
Musk’s SpaceX builds rockets much larger than the ones currently flying by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. While SpaceX is preparing to send private citizens to orbit, including a flight scheduled for September, Mr. Musk has yet to announce when he will be able to make the trip himself. But Blue Origin and SpaceX are competing for federal contracts for projects that include launching a Department of Defense satellite and building a lander to return NASA astronauts to the lunar surface.
So far, Mr. Musk and SpaceX have won Blue Origin. After NASA selected only SpaceX to build the lunar lander, Blue Origin protested the award with the Federal Government’s Office of Accountability. In a tweet After the demonstration was announced, Mr Musk made a comment that dismissed the fact that Blue Origin has yet to reach orbit with any of its rockets.
Over the last few days, Mr Musk has been caught up in a back-and-forth on Twitter with Tory Bruno, the chief executive of United Launch Alliance, one of his traditional aerospace competitors. Musk said the rocket, built by ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is too expensive and would be a failure without a government contract.
He also joked with Bruno that SpaceX could supply some of the engines for the ULA for its new Vulcan rocket. The Blue Origin engine will power the Vulcan’s first stage, which is slated to debut next year.
Earlier, on Thursday, Blue Origin announced that Wally Funk, a pioneering test pilot, would fly on the inaugural New Shepard flight. Funk, 82, is one of a number of “Mercury 13” women who in the 1960s successfully weathered a privately funded protest showing that women can also meet the criteria. NASA press release on astronauts. She will join Mr. Bezos; his younger brother, Mark; and an unnamed person paid more than $28 million in an auction to win a seat on the flight.