Richard Branson, the British billionaire who founded a galaxy of Virgin companies, announced Thursday evening that he would be on the next test flight of the Virgin Galactic spaceplane.
This flight is scheduled to take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico on July 11th.
“The team was ready, so they asked Richard if he was ready,” said Aleanna Crane, vice president of communications for Virgin Galactic. “It’s a great day. It’s a very exciting day. “
Mr. Branson will be able to assert boastful rights in a growing personal space business. Companies like Virgin Galactic and Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin are competing to launch paying passengers on suborbital and orbital voyages in the years to come. Although early trips get expensive, ticket prices can be expected to decrease over time as the market grows.
Mr Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 to offer short tourist flights to the edge of space, and he has long said he would be a passenger on the first commercial flight. But the development of the SpaceShipTwo – a winged rocket that flies to an altitude of more than 80 miles – has taken years longer than Branson expected. The setbacks included the crash of the first SpaceShipTwo aircraft, VSS Enterprise, in October 2014 during a test flight, in which one of the two pilots was killed.
In 2019, Virgin Galactic became a publicly traded company, although Mr Branson’s Virgin Group remains the largest shareholder with a 24 percent stake.
The last engine test flight in May was the first the company conducted from New Mexico. Previously, the spacecraft had been developed and tested in Mojave, California.
Ms. Crane said the last flight went so flawlessly that the team decided to test the cabin experience. “Who better to test the entire cabin experience than Richard Branson?” She said. “He flies as a mission specialist and has a role like the rest of the crew.”
The ship will carry three other Virgin Galactic employees in the cabin seats in addition to the two pilots in front.
“It is one thing to dream of making space more accessible to all,” Branson said in a statement. “It’s another thing for an incredible team to work together to make this dream a reality.”
The company plans to transfer the flight on July 11 at 9 a.m. Eastern Time. The SpaceShipTwo rocket called Unity is carried under an aircraft called the White Knight Two to an altitude of 50,000 feet before being dropped. Unity’s engine then fires and reaches an altitude of more than 50 miles.
At the top of the arch, passengers hover for about four minutes before the spaceplane re-enters the atmosphere and glides off to a runway landing.
If everything goes according to plan, Mr. Branson will fly nine days before Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, buckles into the New Shepard capsule built by his rocket company Blue Origin. New Shepard has flown to the edge of space 15 times but has not yet carried people. It’s fully automated, with no pilots.
Billionaires like Mr. Branson, Mr. Bezos and Elon Musk are the avant-garde in a new era of commercial space travel, accompanied by verbal tournaments – sometimes playful, sometimes disparaging – over whose company is better.
On Wednesday, during an appearance on CNBC, Mr Branson was asked if he was trying to launch Mr Bezos. “Jeff who?” answered Mr. Branson gravely before laughing.
The remark echoed one Mr. Musk once made in a BBC interview.
Even if Mr Branson took off first, Mr Bezos could still argue that he went into space and Mr Branson did not. SpaceShipTwo doesn’t quite reach the 62-mile height, most commonly considered to be the edge of space, while New Shepard exceeds that height, also known as the Karman Line.
“We wish him a great and safe flight, but you don’t fly over the Karman Line and it’s a very different experience,” said Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin, in a statement emailed.
However, the U.S. Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration have set the limit 50 miles lower. The FAA awarded astronaut wings to Virgin Galactic crew members who flew on previous test flights.
Mr. Musks SpaceX builds rockets that are much larger than those currently flown by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. As SpaceX prepares to launch private individuals into orbit on voyages, including a flight scheduled for September, Mr Musk has yet to announce when he could take a trip himself. However, Blue Origin and SpaceX are competing for federal contracts on projects including launching Defense Department satellites and building a lander to bring NASA astronauts back to the lunar surface.
So far, Mr. Musk and SpaceX have triumphed over Blue Origin. After NASA only selected SpaceX to build a lunar lander, Blue Origin protested the award at the federal government’s accounting office. In a tweet following the announcement of the protest, Mr Musk made a comment that played off the fact that Blue Origin had not entered orbit with any of its missiles.
For the past few days, Mr. Musk has gotten into a back and forth Twitter skirmish with Tory Bruno, the chairman of the United Launch Alliance, one of his more traditional aerospace competitors. Mr Musk said missiles from ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, were too expensive and would fail without government contracts.
He also joked Mr Bruno that SpaceX could provide the ULA with some engines for their new volcanic rocket. Blue Origin engines are set to power the first stage of Vulcan, which is scheduled for maiden launch next year.
The previous Thursday, Blue Origin announced that Wally Funk, a pioneering test pilot, would be flying on the first manned New Shepard flight. Ms. Funk, 82, was one of the “Mercury 13” women who successfully passed a privately funded demonstration in the 1960s that showed that women can also meet NASA’s criteria for astronauts. She will join Mr. Bezos; his younger brother Mark; and one as-yet-unidentified individual who paid more than $ 28 million in an auction to win a seat.