Everything you need to know about Richard Branson's weekend trip into space.
Richard Branson will boldly go where no space baron has gone before on Sunday, when he boards Virgin Galactic's supersonic space plane.
Branson's brief joyride has been in the making for more than two decades.
He founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 with the goal of developing a winged spacecraft capable of transporting up to eight people, including two pilots and six passengers, on rocket-powered flights exceeding 50 miles above Earth, the US government's definition of outer space.
The spaceplane, dubbed the VSS Unity by Virgin Galactic, has completed more than 20 test flights, three of which reached the edge of space, transforming five Virgin Galactic employees into pin-carrying astronauts.
However, Branson's flight will mark the first time a billionaire founder of a space company has traveled into space aboard a vehicle he helped fund.
Branson's flight is scheduled to take off early Sunday morning, July 11, weather permitting. Virgin Galactic will broadcast a livestream that morning, a spokesperson confirmed to CNN. The broadcast will be hosted by comedian Stephen Colbert. According to Rolling Stone, Grammy-nominated singer Khalid will also perform a new song at the landing site following Branson's anticipated return.
CNN Business will also share the livestream and provide updates via a live blog.
Here's everything you need to know in the lead up to the big day.
Who is making the journey?
Branson is accompanied by three colleagues. They include:
- Beth Moses, who serves as Virgin Galactic's Chief Astronaut Instructor and is responsible for training the company's future customers. She has previously flown to space aboard VSS Unity during a test flight in 2019. Moses, an aerospace engineer, will not be a bystander. She'll be ensuring the safety of her fellow passengers and ensuring Virgin Galactic collects all necessary data, as this flight will remain a test flight at the end of the day.
- Colin Bennett, who serves as the lead operations engineer for the company. Bennett will assist in assessing the overall experience and ensuring that the cabin equipment is in good working order.
- Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research at Virgin Galactic. Bandla will be assisting with the science. Virgin Galactic frequently conducts experiments in microgravity, and on this flight, Bandla will be assisting with a University of Florida research project that involves handling "handheld fixation tubes."
Branson's role, according to Virgin Galactic, will be to use his "observations from his flight training and spaceflight experience to enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers."
What will transpire?
That is not what Branson will be doing on VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic's only operational SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, though the company is building more.
When the majority of people think of spaceflight, they envision an astronaut circling the Earth and floating in space for several days.
In general, the flight path of VSS Unity is a wild ride. Rather than take off vertically from a launch pad, as most rockets do, the space plane took off on Sunday morning from a runway near Virgin Galactic's "spaceport" in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. (In the 1950s, the former town of Hot Springs, New Mexico, changed its name to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, as part of a publicity stunt for a radio show; the name has remained ever since.)
VSS Unity will be attached to a massive mothership called WhiteKnightTwo, which resembles the tip of two sleek jets. The mothership cruises along for approximately 45 minutes before gradually climbing to approximately 50,000 feet alongside VSS Unity. Then, with the pilots' permission, SpaceShipTwo drops from between WhiteKnightTwo's two fuselages and ignites its rocket engine, swooping directly upward and roaring past the speed of sound.
VSS Unity is a suborbital spacecraft, which means it will be unable to escape Earth's gravity. Rather than that, it will rocket to more than 50 miles above ground at more than three times the speed of sound — about 2,300 miles per hour. Branson and his fellow passengers will briefly experience weightlessness at the flight's apex. It's similar to the weightlessness you feel at the top of a roller coaster hill, just before gravity pulls your cart — or, in Branson's case, his space plane — back down to the ground.
After approximately a minute, the engine shuts down, suspending the spacecraft and its passengers in microgravity. SpaceShipTwo then rolls onto its belly, providing passengers with panoramic views of the Earth below and the inky black void above.
To complete the journey, SpaceShipTwo raises its wings in the shape of a badminton shuttlecock, reorienting the vehicle as it begins to fall back to Earth. It then reverts to a runway landing by lowering its wings.
A small group of reporters will be admitted to observe the launch. CNN Business will provide live updates here in addition to providing live television coverage.
What distinguishes this from the work of SpaceX and Blue Origin?
Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, took a very different approach with its suborbital space tourism rocket. The company's New Shepard vehicle is a capsule and rocket system that launches vertically from a launch pad, taking passengers on an 11-minute flight to more than 60 miles above sea level before the capsule deploys parachute-equipped parachutes to gently land.
However, when both companies begin commercial operations, they will be direct competitors. Both are vying for the ultra-rich thrill seekers willing to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for the chance to experience a supersonic gut punch and a few minutes of weightlessness.
Elon Musk — the other billionaire in space — runs a very different operation than what Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic will demonstrate this month.
To begin, SpaceX is a manufacturer of orbital rockets. Orbital rockets must generate enough thrust to reach at least 17,000 miles per hour, or what is referred to as orbital velocity. This provides enough energy for a spacecraft to continue whipping around the Earth rather than being dragged back down by gravity. This is how SpaceX launches satellites into orbit and transports astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
While Branson's other company, Virgin Orbit, has launched a rocket into orbit and Bezos' Blue Origin plans to do so eventually with a rocket called New Glenn, neither company has garnered the same level of attention or impact in the space sector as SpaceX has.
How dangerous is this?
Historically, space travel has been fraught with danger. Though the risks associated with Branson's trip to suborbital space are not necessarily astronomical, given that Virgin Galactic has spent the better part of the last two decades testing its space planes.
Still, any time a human straps themselves to a rocket, there are risks — and Branson appears to have determined that the risks are worth it for him.
“You have to keep in mind that Virgin Galactic carries passengers on every spaceflight...
Branson told CNN Business' Rachel Crane, "The fact that I'm willing to fly with those people demonstrates confidence." “I believe the bare minimum that the company's founder can do is go up there and fly with his people.”