In the billionaire race to be the first on a commercial flight into the edge of space, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson plans to pip Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos with a flight planned for July 11. (Bezos first planned space flight is set for July 20).
“Astronaut 001” Branson will be part of the “Unity 22” mission – the twenty-second flight test for VSS Unity and the company’s fourth crewed spaceflight – where he will be testing the private astronaut experience.
Sir Richard Branson said: “I truly believe that space belongs to all of us. 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. It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality. As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honoured to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.”
The Unity 22 flight will also be the first to carry a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists in the cabin. The flight will focus on cabin and customer experience objectives, which will evaluate the commercial customer cabin with a full crew, including the cabin environment, seat comfort, the weightless experience, and the views of Earth. The aim of the Virgin Galactic commercial space flight is to “ensure every moment of the astronaut’s journey maximizes the wonder and awe created by space travel”.
Michael Colglazier, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Galactic, said: “Our next flight—the 22nd flight test for VSS Unity and our first fully crewed flight test—is a testament to the dedication and technical brilliance of our entire team, and I’d like to extend a special thank you to our pilots and mission specialists, each of whom will be performing important work. Tapping into Sir Richard’s expertise and long history of creating amazing customer experiences will be invaluable as we work to open the wonder of space travel and create awe-inspiring journeys for our customers.”
Joining Branson, will be the four pilots: Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci flying VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer flying VMS Eve, and flight’s four mission specialists: Beth Moses, Colin Bennet, Sirisha Bandla and Richard Branson.
Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic, will serve as cabin lead and test director in space, overseeing the safe and efficient execution of the test flight objectives. Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer at Virgin Galactic, will evaluate cabin equipment, procedures, and experience during both the boost phase and in the weightless environment. Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations, will be evaluating the human-tended research experience, using an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes that will be activated at various points in the flight profile.
As mentioned, Branson will evaluate the private astronaut experience and will undergo the same training, preparation and flight as Virgin Galactic’s future astronauts. The company will use his observations from his flight training and spaceflight experience to enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers.
In a video announcement, Branson said that when he returns he promises to disclose a “very exciting” announcement to give everyone the chance to experience space flight.
The “Unity 22” mission will launch on July 11, pending weather and technical checks, and will be live streamed on Virgin Galactic.com and will be simulcast on the Virgin Galactic Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook channels. It is expected to begin at 7:00 am MDT / 9:00 am EDT on the day of the flight.
Two additional test flights are planned before Virgin Galactic expects to commence commercial service in 2022.