On Thursday afternoon, Virgin Galactic said its founder, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, will attempt to go to space on July 11.
Dubbed the “Unity 22” mission, this flight on the VSS Unity spacecraft will carry a full crew of two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, and four mission specialists, including Branson. “Building on the success of the company’s most recent spaceflight in May, Unity 22 will focus on cabin and customer experience objectives,” the company said in a statement.
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 honored to help validate the journey.
The timing of this flight is significant, because a July 11 mission would allow Branson to beat Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to space. Bezos has said he will fly on the first human flight of the New Shepard spacecraft, developed and tested by his Blue Origin rocket company. That mission is set for July 20.
Thursday had been a great day for Bezos and Blue Origin, as the company received plaudits from across the space industry for inviting Wally Funk to join Bezos on the New Shepard flight. Funk, 82, was member of the privately funded “Mercury 13” program for women who ultimately were not selected to go into space in the 1960s. She is seen as someone who really, really deserves to go to space.
But Virgin Galactic’s announcement will upstage this moment for Bezos, as it furthers the “battle of the billionaires” to see who will go into space first.
Branson is clearly keen to be first, and Virgin Galactic has changed its flight plans to accommodate this trip. Originally, the company’s plan next called for a test flight with four employees in the passenger cabin. That test was then to have been followed by Branson’s mission.
Questions will be asked about whether Branson and Virgin Galactic are rushing things. For example, responding to the news Thursday afternoon, former flight director and space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale tweeted the following: “Talk about schedule pressure! Hope nobody cuts any corners.”
However, it is plausible that Virgin Galactic’s flight on May 22 went well, and therefore the VSS Unity spacecraft and its carrier aircraft could be ready again by early July. Only a little more than two months passed between the first (December 13, 2018) and second (February 22, 2019) spaceflights of VSS Unity. This time, the turnaround would be about 1.5 months.
If Richard Branson gets to space before July 20, as now seems likely, he will have beaten Jeff Bezos both in launching cargo to orbit—with his Virgin Orbit rocket company—as well as personally flying to space, despite starting four years later and spending a fraction of the money.
Theoretically, Bezos might argue that Branson isn’t actually going to space. There is some dispute in the space community about the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere and the cosmos. For a long time, it was agreed that this boundary began as 100 km, known as the Kármán line. But in recent years, there has been some agreement that space begins lower, and attitudes appear to be changing. Branson is likely to fly above 80 km in VSS Unity, whereas New Shepard will take Bezos comfortably above 100 km before coming back down to Earth.