Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson plans July spaceflight to upstage Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin trip

Richard Branson in flight suit
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson says he’ll be Astronaut 001 on the company’s next test flight. (Virgin Galactic via YouTube)

The billionaire space race is on: Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is on the crew for the next test flight of the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, which is scheduled to cross the 50-mile space frontier as early as July 11. That’s nine days before Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is planning his own suborbital space trip.

Virgin Galactic’s flight test plan, announced today, sets up a battle for the bragging rights associated with being the first person to ride his own company’s rocket ship into space.

Neither man would be the first billionaire in space. That distinction belongs to veteran Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi, who traveled to the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009.

Moreover, the definition of the space frontier could add an asterisk to the record book: Virgin Galactic sides with the Federal Aviation Administration in defining the space boundary as the 50-mile-high mark. Blue Origin plans to send its New Shepard spaceship beyond the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude that currently serves as the internationally accepted boundary of space.

Previously: Jeff Bezos invites pioneering woman aviator Wally Funk to join him on space trip

Either way, the space race is likely to make for a dramatic few weeks, considering the risks that come with testing new space vehicles — not to mention the egos of the billionaire space barons.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity rocket plane has gone through 20 tests, including three crewed flight tests that soared higher than 50 miles. The company had planned to conduct one more flight test before putting Branson on board, but that schedule was changed after Bezos announced that he’d go into space on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

For the first time, Virgin Galactic will provide streaming video coverage of the entire flight on its website as well as its Twitter, Facebook and YouTube channels. Coverage is expected to begin at 9 a.m. ET / 7 a.m. MT / 6 a.m. PT on the day of the flight.

There’s no guarantee that either billionaire will fly on the currently designated day. Technical issues or weather concerns could force postponements, adding yet another source of drama.

The goal of Virgin Galactic’s next flight test is to evaluate the seats and other aspects of the cabin environment with a full crew. Branson and his crewmates will assess how it’ll feel when customers get on board for a roughly 2.5-hour flight that includes a few minutes of weightlessness and a 50-mile-high view of the curving Earth.

They’ll also sample the training program at Virgin Galactic’s terminal at New Mexico’s Spaceport America, and demonstrate procedures for conducting human-tended research experiments.

Pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci will be at the controls in VSS Unity, while CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer will be flying the rocket plane’s twin-fuselage mothership, VMS Eve.

Branson’s companions in the passenger cabin will be Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor, who took a trip to space in February 2019; lead operations engineer Colin Bennett; and Sirisha Bandia, vice president of government affairs and research operations. Bandia will be in charge of an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes to be activated at various points during the flight.

“As the Virgin Galactic founder, I am so proud to have this remarkable crew of mission specialists and pilots by my side as we fly to space. I’ve always been a dreamer. My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars. This July, our dream will become a reality,” Branson said in a video previewing the flight.

“When we return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people a chance to become astronauts,” he promised.

Results of the test flight will be evaluated and fed into what are expected to be the final two flights of the VSS Unity test program — another flight aimed at evaluating the customer experience, which was previously due to carry Branson; and a research flight for the Italian Air Force.

Virgin Galactic is aiming to begin commercial space tours in 2022, with about 600 customers on the waiting list. Those customers have paid as much as $250,000 for their reservation, and the price is sure to go up when ticket sales resume.

Word of Branson’s flight plans provided a boost for Virgin Galactic’s share price, which shot up more than 25% today in after-hours trading.

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Space Blue origin Jeff bezos New shepard Richard branson Space tourism Spaceshiptwo Suborbital spaceflight Virgin galactic Vss unity