Richard Branson finally takes a trip into space on Sunday.
Mr. Branson, the 70-year-old British billionaire who leads a galaxy of Virgin companies, had to wait a long time. In 2004, he founded Virgin Galactic to offer adventure travelers rocket-powered plane rides to the edge of space and back.
At the time, he thought commercial service would begin in two to three years. Instead, almost 17 years have passed. Virgin Galactic said it still has three more test flights to run, including the one on Sunday, before it can be ready to pay passengers.
For this flight, Mr. Branson will be a member of the crew. His job is to evaluate the cabin experience for prospective customers.
When is the flight and how can I watch it?
The flight is scheduled to take off on Sunday morning from Spaceport America in New Mexico, about 180 miles south of Albuquerque.
Virgin will report the flight starting at 9 a.m. Eastern time, with Stephen Colbert hosts a live stream. Singer Khalid is expected to perform a new song after the crew lands, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk suggests he might show up.
What is Virgin Galactic’s space plane, and what will it do?
The rocket plane, a type known as the SpaceShipTwo, is about the size of an executive jet. In addition to the two pilots, there will be four people in the cabin. This particular SpaceShipTwo is named VSS Unity.
To get off the ground, Unity was carried by a larger plane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet. There, Unity will be released and the rocket plane’s engine will catch on fire. The acceleration will make people on board feel a force up to 3.5 times their normal weight on the way to an altitude of more than 50 miles.
At the top of the arc, those on board should be able to get out of their seats and experience about four minutes of apparent weightlessness. Of course, they won’t really escape gravity. Fifty miles up, Earth’s gravitational pull is essentially just as strong as it is on the ground; rather, passengers will fall at the same speed as the aircraft around them.
The two tail rods at the back of the space plane rotate in a “feathered” fashion, creating more drag and stability, allowing the plane to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere more smoothly. This configuration makes SpaceShipTwo more like a badminton, always falling with the pointed side down, rather than a flat surface.
However, the force that passengers feel on the way down will be greater than on the way up, six times the force of gravity.
As the plane re-enters the atmosphere, the tail turns back and the plane will land. The entire flight can take less than two hours.
Who were the crew members on the flight?
The pilots were David Mackay and Michael Masucci.
In addition to Mr Branson, three Virgin Galactic employees will assess what the experience will be like for future paying customers. They were Beth Moses, the main astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, principal operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research. Ms. Bandla will also conduct a science experiment provided by the University of Florida.