Virgin Galactic will launch Richard Branson and three company employees to the edge of space on Sunday morning, July 11th. The company promises quite a show for the task: Stephen Colbert hosts the streaming of the mission, singer-songwriter Khalid reportedly performs a new single on stage after the spacecraft lands, and Branson has said he will “announce something very exciting” after his spaceflight.
The flight is one of the company’s last test visits before it aims to launch a commercial space travel business next year. Called Unity 22, the mission marks Virgin Galactic’s fourth flight into space, carrying people. Four people, including Branson, test the astronaut’s cabin experience, and two pilots are in the cockpit.
The action begins when Virgin Galactic’s two-hull WhiteKnight aircraft carrier departs on Sunday morning from Spaceport America, the company’s spaceport in New Mexico. The WhiteKnight aircraft, VMS Eve, carries a rocket-powered spacecraft called VSS Unity with Branson and others. About 40 minutes after takeoff, Unity falls from the center of the mother ship and ignites its rocket engine moments later to send Branson and the crew to the edge of space, about 55 miles high, for a few minutes of weightlessness. Unity returns to the landing area at the American Spaceport, just like all ordinary commercial aircraft.
Unity 22 is a significant step forward in Virgin Galactic’s efforts in space tourism, which is in the service of wealthy adventure seekers. Founded in 2004, the company has already sold about 600 tickets, and each ticket costs about $ 250,000. Branson is just one player in a billionaire-led race to condemn space tourists. He competes with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which aims to launch passengers with his suborbital New Shepard rocket, and Elon Muskin SpaceX, which plans to place tourists in its orbit in the Crew Dragon capsule for a longer and more expensive experience in space.
Sunday’s missionary work is also surrounded by an even spicier competition with Bezos. Virgo galactic announced a Branson spaceflight a few weeks after Blue Origin announced it would send Bezos into space on July 20th. Blue Origin then announced that it would also fly Wally Funk on July 20, the pilot who originally planned to fly the Virgin Galactic spacecraft first. Branson denies that his new flight day was supposed to beat Bezos into space; he said Washington Post last week it was just “a wonderful coincidence that we get up in the same month”.