British business baron Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, will fly to the ‘edge of space’ days ahead of rival Jeff Bezos. Virgin Galactic announced that Branson would be a "mission specialist" aboard the SpaceShipTwo Unity, which will head to space on July 11, "pending weather and technical checks."
The Amazon founder and space enthusiast, on the other hand, will fly into space on July 20, which marks the 52nd anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing.
Both billionaires, Bezos and Branson, are competing in the suborbital tourism race to take passengers on short flights to the ‘edge of space’.
Branson’s successful maiden flight in VSS Unity spaceplane will mark a key milestone in a new era of private commercial space travel.
The space tourism market size could be around $3 billion per annum by 2030, estimates UBS, according to a Reuters report.
July 11 marks the opening of the ‘flight window’. Virgin’s Unity will fly from New Mexico.
VSS Unity can ascend to a height of 90 km (295,000 ft), giving space travellers a few minutes of weightlessness due to lack of gravity and a view of the spherical earth.
Space begins at just 50 miles up, says the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), indicating that the US considers a person, who flies above 50 miles, an astronaut.
While there’s still debate around where space actually begins, the Kármán Line is an imaginary boundary 62 miles (or 100 km) above sea level.
Meanwhile, Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Bezos’ Blue Origin spacecraft reach an altitude of about 80 km to 100 km (or about 260,000 to 330,000 feet), spending a few minutes floating in microgravity, according to a CNBC report.
Branson is set to make the space trip with three co-testers—Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor, Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer, and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs.
The two pilots of Unity will be Dave Mackay and Michael "Sooch" Masucci.
Branson’s space firm Virgin Galactic has developed winged rocket ship SpaceShipTwo Unity and VSS Unity in Mojave (California) after 17 years of research, engineering, and innovation, Branson told BBC.
SpaceShipTwo Unity is a carrier airplane, not a rocket. After reaching a high altitude, it releases a smaller spacecraft, VSS Unity, and fires its engines. VSS Unity touches suborbital space and then comes back to earth.
The July 11 mission will be the 22nd flight test for VSS Unity and Virgin's fourth crewed spaceflight.
Virgin Galactic aspires to focus on quick turnaround time and intends to fly multiple commercial spacecraft every week starting 2022. According to reports, apace enthusiasts will be able to buy a quick trip for $250,000.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), on June 25, cleared Branson's Virgin Galactic to fly customers into space and upgraded its existing licence, reported Bloomberg.
Bezos’ space trip
Jeff Bezos will be joined by brother Mark, 82-year old aviator Wally Funk and the winner of an auction, who has paid $28m for a seat on the New Shepard booster and capsule system to fly (from west Texas) to a height of 100 km.
Funk trained to be an astronaut in the 1960s for Mercury 13 programme and with this trip, she will become the oldest spacefarer.
(Edited by : Kanishka Sarkar)
First Published: IST