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Richard Branson heading for space as billionaires battle for profits on the high frontier

Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos race to space
Virgin Galactic set to launch billionaire Richard Branson to space nine days before Jeff Bezos 04:45

After nearly two decades of overly optimistic forecasts, technical challenges, a tragic setback and a determined recovery, Richard Branson, the globe-trotting media mogul and founder of Virgin Galactic, plans to rocket into space Sunday, beating fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos to the punch by nine days.

In a high-stakes display of confidence in Virgin's sleek rocket-powered spaceplane, Branson will launch with two company pilots and three other Virgin crewmates — aiming to get an owner's understanding of what his company is offering and in the process, convince potential customers that purely commercial, non-government flights to space are worth the initially astronomical cost.

And the risk.

"I believe that commercial space travel can become a profitable enterprise, but that is not the point," he wrote in his most recent autobiography. "If I had merely wanted to make more money, I could have invested in far safer, more reliable sectors. I believe that putting our faith in space travel serves, quite literally, a higher purpose."

The crew of VSS Unity, left to right: Pilot Dave Mackay, operations engineer Colin Bennett, chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson, government affairs VP Sirisha Bandla and co-pilot Michael Masucci. Virgin Galactic

Commercial spaceflight, he wrote, will "expand our understanding of the universe" and "improve countless lives back on Earth."

"In the decades to come, we could be a precursor to further space exploration, which could lead to the colonization of other planets and the eventual endurance of the human race," he concluded. "There can be no greater challenge."

If all goes well, the flight will get underway at Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, shortly after 10:30 a.m. EDT Sunday, July 11, when Virgin's four-engine "mothership," the VMS Eve, takes off and carries the VSS Unity spaceplane to an altitude of about 45,000 feet. 

Strapped into Unity, Branson, two company pilots and three crewmates then will be released for a rocket-powered climb to the lower reaches of space, followed by a gliding descent back to Spaceport America's 12,000-foot-long runway.

Virgin plans to provide a live webcast starting at 10:30 a.m. EDT Sunday, which will include the debut of a new song, "New Normal," performed by singer-songwriter Khalid.

Billionaires and the private space race

Virgin Galactic and Bezos' Blue Origin are competing head to head in the emerging space tourism marketplace, both offering short up-and-down rides just above the aerodynamically discernible atmosphere for a few minutes of weightlessness and spectacular views of Earth and the deep black of outer space.

Blue Origin will fly a bit higher, while Virgin Galactic's flights will last longer.

Along with wealthy space tourists, both companies expect to fly researchers and experiments from government agencies and companies developing or testing space technology.

Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket, seen here with company owner Jeff Bezos, will boost passengers on sub-orbital trips above the internationally recognized 62-mile-high "boundary" of space. Virgin Atlantic, owned by fellow billionaire Richard Branson, will carry passengers above the 50-mile-high altitude recognized by NASA and the FAA. Blue Origin

Neither company has said how much it will cost for a ride to space, but tickets are expected to run in the neighborhood of $250,000 to $500,000. Some 600 enthusiasts have put down refundable deposits for flights aboard Virgin's spaceplane, many of them reserving seats shortly after the company's founding in 2004.

"If I weigh up everything I have ever taken on, this is the biggest task, and if we can pull it off, it will be my proudest achievement," Branson wrote.

Virgin won the initial race to space with people on board on December 13, 2018, when VSS Unity carried two pilots out of the atmosphere. Two more piloted test flights to space were launched in 2019 and this past May 22.

Two weeks earlier, Blue Origin carried out the 15th successful test flight of the New Shepard spacecraft, all of them unpiloted. On May 5 — the 60th anniversary of Alan Shepard's flight to become the first American in space — the company announced its next test flight, on July 20, would carry its first crew.

Then, on June 7, Bezos announced that he planned to blast off on the July 20 flight of New Shepard, along with his brother Mark and several others.

"You see the Earth from space that changes you, it changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity. It's one Earth," Bezos said in an Instagram post announcing his flight. "I want to go on this flight because it's the thing I've wanted to do all my life. It's an adventure. It's a big deal for me."

They will be joined on board by the as-yet-unidentified winner of an online auction who bid $28 million for the opportunity. Blue Origin then announced that aviation pioneer Wally Funk, 82, who was one of the women barred from NASA's initially all-male astronaut corps, will also join the crew.

Later that same day, Virgin announced that Branson planned to blast off on July 11 along with five company employees. The launching will mark the first with non-professional "passengers" on board, giving the British tycoon billionaire bragging rights in the commercial space arena.

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceplane, rocketing out of the lower atmosphere on a sub-orbital test flight.  Virgin Galactic

"I truly believe that space belongs to all of us," Branson said in a statement. "After more than 16 years of research, engineering and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry, which is set to open space to humankind and change the world for good."

He said he was "honored to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin."

And Branson insists he's not in any sort of "space race" with Bezos or SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

"There is certainly professional rivalry between us, but also enormous respect and a shared desire to shake up the space industry," he wrote in his autobiography. "A new generation of entrepreneurs is trying to bring innovation back to the stars."

Bezos has had no public comment on Virgin's sudden decision to schedule Branson's flight ahead of Blue Origin's.

But Blue Origin posted a tweet Friday pointing out that its New Shepard passengers will reach altitudes higher than 62 miles (100 kilometers), the internationally recognized "boundary" of space known as the Kármán line, while Virgin Galactic customers will not.

"None of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name," the tweet boasted.

Virgin Galactic's spaceplane soars to just above 50 miles, the boundary long recognized by the U.S. Air Force, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration as the point where a vehicle is no longer affected by aerodynamics and behaves as if in a vacuum.

Who's who in the crew

Joining Branson aboard the VSS Unity spaceplane will be company pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, along with Virgin's chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, operations engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, Virgin's vice president for government affairs and research operations.

Mackay flew two earlier sub-orbital test flights while Masucci and Moses each have one previous flight to their credits.

Moses is married to Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses, a former shuttle integration manager for NAS. 

Bandla will be the first Indian-American to fly in space since astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who lost her life in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster.

Sunday's flight will be Virgin's fourth piloted sub-orbital spaceflight, all of them test missions, and the 22nd flight of VSS Unity overall. Two more test flights are believed to be planned before commercial operations commence.

Including NASA's first two Mercury missions, 13 X-15 test flights above 50 miles and three 2004 flights by a precursor to Virgin's spaceplane, Branson's flight will be the 23rd sub-orbital launch since 1961.

Different approaches to launch and landing

While Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin both plan to offer rides to sub-orbital space, the companies chose very different approaches to the challenge of safely launching passengers out of the discernible atmosphere.

Bezos' Blue Origin chose a more traditional approach, designing a fully automated single-stage, reusable rocket powered by a company-designed hydrogen-burning BE-3 engine. The rocket, or propulsion module, is designed to boost a roomy crew capsule carrying up to six passengers to altitudes above 62 miles.

Blue Origin customers will experience about three times the normal force of gravity during the climb to sub-orbital space, along with about three minutes of weightlessness as the capsule arcs over the top of the trajectory and then descends toward touchdown suspended below three parachutes.

Blue Origin's New Shepard crew capsule features six seats and the largest windows ever built into a spacecraft. Blue Origin

Built into the capsule is an Aerojet Rocketdyne solid-propellant rocket motor designed to quickly propel the capsule away from a malfunctioning booster. The abort system has been successfully tested three times in flight.

The capsule also features six of the largest windows ever built into a spacecraft, each one measuring 28.8 inches wide and 42.7 inches tall.

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spacecraft offers an altogether different sort of user experience based on legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan's concept for a winged spaceplane.

Virgin Galactic's airliner-style cabin features smaller windows than Blue Origin, but there are more of them: 12 in the cabin and 5 in the cockpit. Virgin Galactic

A smaller two-man version of the spacecraft won the $10 million Ansari X-prize in 2004, completing two trips to space and back within two weeks. Branson purchased rights to the design and scaled it up to carry two pilots and up to six passengers. Because of weight issues, it is initially carrying four passengers at a time.

Instead of launching from the ground, carrying the fuel needed to climb out of the dense lower atmosphere, Virgin Galactic's spaceplane is carried aloft by a twin-fuselage carrier jet — VMS Eve — and then released at around 45,000 feet.

Using a hybrid rocket motor burning solid propellant with liquid nitrous oxide, the spaceplane quickly shoots away below the carrier jet, pitching up into a near vertical trajectory. After shutdown, the spacecraft coasts to apogee, providing about three minutes of weightlessness along the way.

Using a Rutan innovation known as "feathering," VSS Unity's wings and tail fins are designed to pivot upward by 60 degrees once out of the thick lower atmosphere.

As the spacecraft descends, the feathered wing-and-tail booms generate enormous drag like a badminton shuttlecock, reducing re-entry speeds and heating while acting to put the ship in the proper orientation without pilot intervention.

Once back down into the discernible atmosphere at an altitude of about 55,000 feet, the wings pivot back down parallel with the fuselage, the ship becomes a glider and the pilots guide it to touchdown at Spaceport America's 12,000-foot-long runway.

The VSS Unity on a gliding approach to the 12,000-foot-long runway at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The company is an anchor tenant at the state-funded facility. Virgin Galactic

An earlier Virgin spaceplane, the VSS Enterprise, suffered a catastrophic failure during a test flight in 2014. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the co-pilot unlocked the feather mechanism too soon and the ship was torn apart by aerodynamic stresses.

The co-pilot was killed and the pilot, who was somehow blown free of the disintegrating craft, was seriously injured. Virgin Galactic added safeguards to prevent a premature feather deployment and the system worked flawlessly ever since.

Virgin Galactic's spaceplane and Blue Origin's booster-capsule offer advantages and disadvantages.

Blue Origin's spacecraft is fully automated — no pilots or control systems are on board — and it boasts a "full envelope" abort system capable of propelling a crew to safety at any point from the launch pad to space.

In addition, Blue Origin offers spectacular views through its bay windows and it will fly slightly higher, above the 62-mile Kármán line, while Virgin's spaceplane initially, at least, will fly about 10 miles lower.

While not equipped with a stand-alone abort system, the hybrid motor in Virgin Galactic's spaceplane can be shut down on command if sensors detect any sort of issue. And while the spacecraft features smaller windows, there are more of them — 12 in the passenger cabin and five in the cockpit.

Perhaps the most striking difference in the passenger experience is the flight duration. Blue Origin's New Shepard takes off, soars to space and lands in about 10 minutes.

Virgin Galactic's flight duration, from takeoff to landing, is an hour or more. Virgin passengers, strapped into the VSS Unity, will first be carried up to launch altitude by the VMS Eve carrier jet and then released for the rocket ride to space and a gliding descent to Earth.

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