02 July 2021 News

Branson plans space trip ahead of rival Bezos

Richard Branson will be
Richard Branson will be "Astronaut 001" on the next SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceflight 11 July. If the flight leaves on schedule he will go to space nine days before Jeff Bezos flies to space on his Blue Origin's New Shepard. Image: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has upped the ante for space victories by announcing that he will head into space on the company’s next flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle on 11 July; this is nine days ahead of rival billionaire Jeff Besoz, who announced similar intentions last month.

“I am so proud and excited to be flying to space on Virgin Galactic’s next rocket-powered test flight,” Branson said Thursday.

Virgin Galactic announced late 1 July that the flight window for the next rocket-powered test flight of its SpaceShipTwo Unity will open 11 July, pending weather and technical checks.

Dubbed the “Unity 22” mission, the aerospace firm also revealed that this would be the first spaceflight to carry a full crew, including two pilots and four mission specialists in the cabin; a flight that is now permissive after Virgin Galactic recently received an operator license from the FAA to allow the firm to fly customers to space.

One of those mission specialists is Sir Richard Branson. His role in the flight is to test the private astronaut experience.

“I’ve always been a dreamer. My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars. On July 11, it’s time to turn that dream into a reality aboard the next Virgin Galactic spaceflight,” Branson said in a Tweet yesterday.

The flight is scheduled for no earlier than 9.00 am Eastern time from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Its pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, have both previously flown SpaceShipTwo beyond 80-kilometers – an altitude the company considers the boundary of space.

Not all organisations acknowledge that where the atmosphere ends and space begins – an imaginary border known as the Kármán Line – resides at 80-kilometres. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), an international standard-setting and record-keeping body for aeronautics and astronautics, defines the Kármán line as the altitude of 100 kilometres (62 miles; 330,000 feet) above Earth's mean sea level.

If Virgin Galactic’s schedule holds, Branson will make it to space before Bezos, who proclaimed in early June that he and his brother would be part of the first crewed flight aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard launch vehicle on 20 July.

Bezos made announcements of his own yesterday when he disclosed that 82-year-old female space pioneer Wally Funk would be joining him on his New Shepard flight as an "honoured guest".

“I can’t tell people who are watching how fabulous I feel to be picked by Blue Origin to go on this trip,” Funk said via a video posted on Instagram by Bezos.

Born in New Mexico in 1939, Funk was one of the Mercury 13 – the first women trained to fly to space from 1960-1961, but excluded because of their gender.

She has since gone on to log 19,600 flight hours across her career and taught some 3,000 people to fly.

Although Funk has already racked up a number of historical achievements, such as serving as the first female air safety investigator for the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) and the first woman to be an inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US, she will make history again by being the oldest person yet to fly into space.

The record is currently held by John Glenn, who was 77 when he flew on the STS-95 shuttle mission using the orbiter Discovery in 1998.

Along with the Amazon founder and his brother Mark, Funk will fly with a mystery person who paid $28m (£20m) at auction for a seat.

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