Live Updates: Richard Branson Prepares to Take Flight on V.S.S. Unity

The Virgin Galactic space plane will lift off from New Mexico on Sunday morning as billionaire entrepreneurs race to make spaceflight seem unexceptional.,

LiveUpdated July 11, 2021, 9:26 a.m. ETJuly 11, 2021, 9:26 a.m. ET

The Virgin Galactic space plane will lift off from New Mexico on Sunday morning as billionaire entrepreneurs race to make spaceflight seem unexceptional.

Richard Branson is finally getting his trip to space on Sunday.

It has been a very long wait for Mr. Branson, the irreverent, 70-year-old British billionaire who leads a galaxy of Virgin companies. In 2004, he founded Virgin Galactic to provide adventurous tourists with rides on rocket-powered planes to the edge of space and back.

At the time, he thought commercial service would begin in two to three years. Instead, close to 17 years have passed. Virgin Galactic says it still has three more test flights to conduct, including the one on Sunday, before it can be ready for paying passengers.

For this flight, Mr. Branson will be a member of the crew. His task is to evaluate the cabin experience for future customers.

The flight is scheduled to take off on Sunday morning from Spaceport America in New Mexico, about 180 miles south of Albuquerque.

Virgin will broadcast coverage of the flight beginning at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time. The launch was pushed back about 90 minutes from its original start time because weather conditions overnight at the spaceport resulted in a delay of the spacecraft leaving its hangar. But as the sun rose, weather at the launch site looked favorable for the flight.

Stephen Colbert will be hosting the livestream. The singer Khalid is scheduled to perform a new song after the crew lands. And Mr. Branson tweeted a picture in the morning with Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, who is in New Mexico to watch the flight.

The rocket plane, a type called SpaceShipTwo, is about the size of an executive jet. In addition to the two pilots, there will be four people in the cabin. This particular SpaceShipTwo is named V.S.S. Unity.

To get off the ground, Unity is carried by a larger plane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet. There, Unity will be released, and the rocket plane’s motor will ignite. The acceleration will make people on board feel a force up to 3.5 times their normal weight on the way to an altitude of more than 50 miles.

At the top of the arc, those on board will be able to get out of their seats and experience about four minutes of apparent weightlessness. Of course, they will not have actually escaped gravity. Fifty miles up, Earth’s downward gravitational pull is essentially just as strong as it is on the ground; rather, the passengers will be falling at the same pace as the plane around them.

V.S.S. Unity during its May 22 test flight.Credit…Virgin Galactic, via Reuters

The two tail booms at the back of the space plane rotate up to a “feathered” configuration that creates more drag and stability, allowing the plane to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere more gently. This configuration makes SpaceShipTwo more like a badminton shuttlecock, which always falls with the pointy side oriented down, than a plane.

Still, the forces felt by the passengers on the way down will be greater than on the way up, reaching six times the force of gravity.

Once the plane is back in the atmosphere, the tail booms rotate back down, and the plane will glide to a landing. The whole flight may take less than two hours.

The crew aboard Sunday's Virgin Galactic flight, from left: Dave Mackay, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla and Michael Masucci.
The crew aboard Sunday’s Virgin Galactic flight, from left: Dave Mackay, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla and Michael Masucci.Credit…Virgin Galactic, via Associated Press

The pilots are David Mackay and Michael Masucci.

In addition to Mr. Branson, three Virgin Galactic employees will evaluate how the experience will be for future paying customers. They are Beth Moses, the chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations. Ms. Bandla will also conduct a science experiment provided by the University of Florida.

The federal government does not impose regulations for the safety of passengers on a spacecraft like Virgin Galactic’s. Unlike commercial passenger jetliners, the rocket plane has not been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Indeed, the F.A.A. is prohibited by law from issuing any such requirements until 2023.

The rationale is that emerging space companies like Virgin Galactic need a “learning period” to try out designs and procedures and that too much regulation too soon would stifle innovation that would lead to better, more efficient designs.

Future passengers will have to sign forms acknowledging “informed consent” to the risks, similar to what you sign if you go skydiving or bungee jumping.

What the F.A.A. does regulate is ensuring safety for people not on the plane — that is, if anything does go wrong, that the risk to the “uninvolved public” on ground is minuscule.

SpaceShipOne during its September 2004 flight in Mojave, Calif.Credit…Henry A. Barrios/The Bakersfield Californian, via Associated Press

The Virgin Galactic design already has an imperfect safety record. The company’s first space plane, the V.S.S. Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014 when the co-pilot moved a lever too early during the flight, allowing the tail booms to rotate when they should have remained rigid. The Enterprise broke apart, and the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed. The pilot, Peter Siebold, survived after parachuting out of the plane.

The controls were redesigned so that the tail booms cannot be unlocked prematurely.

In 2019, Virgin Galactic came close to another catastrophe when a new metal thermal protection film was improperly installed, covering up holes that allow air trapped inside a horizontal stabilizer — the small horizontal wing on the tail of a plane — to flow out as the craft rises into the rarefied layers of the atmosphere. Instead, the pressure of the trapped air ruptured a seal along one of the stabilizers.

The mishap was revealed earlier this year in the book “Test Gods” by Nicholas Schmidle, a staff writer at The New Yorker. The book quotes Todd Ericson, then the vice president for safety and testing at Virgin Galactic, saying, “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and kill three people.”

Virgin Galactic will attempt to carry its founder and other crew members to the edge of space on Sunday.
Virgin Galactic will attempt to carry its founder and other crew members to the edge of space on Sunday.Credit…Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters

Founding a space exploration company was perhaps an unsurprising step for Mr. Branson, who has made a career — and a fortune estimated at $6 billion — building flashy upstart businesses that he promotes with a showman’s flair.

What became his Virgin business empire began with a small record shop in central London in the 1970s before Mr. Branson parlayed it into Virgin Records, the home of acts like the Sex Pistols, Peter Gabriel and more. In 1984, he co-founded what became Virgin Atlantic to challenge British Airways in the field of long-haul passenger air travel. Other Virgin-branded airlines followed.

The Virgin Group branched out into other businesses as well, including a mobile-phone carrier, a passenger railroad and a line of hotels. Not all have performed flawlessly: Both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia filed for insolvency during the pandemic last year, while few today remember his ventures into soft drinks, cosmetics or lingerie.

Virgin Galactic was announced to much fanfare in 2004 with the promise of creating a space tourism company with style. Virgin Orbit, a spinoff of that company that launches small satellites from a jumbo jet, came 13 years later. Virgin Orbit, now separate from Virgin Galactic, has carried payloads to orbit twice this year.

The space tourism company is of a piece with Mr. Branson’s penchant for highflying pursuits like skydiving and hot-air ballooning. And unlike many of the Virgin Group’s businesses that are actually minority investments or simply licensees, Virgin Galactic has been a major focus of Mr. Branson’s. He raised $1 billion for the space companies from Saudi Arabia, only to call off the deal in 2018 after the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And in a regulatory filing, the company said it had benefited from his “personal network to generate new inquiries and reservation sales, as well as referrals from existing reservation holders.”

“We’ve spent 14 years working on our space program,” Mr. Branson said in a Bloomberg Television interview in 2018. “And it’s been tough, and space is tough — it’s rocket science.” He added that he had hoped to travel on one of Virgin Galactic’s flights by the end of that year.

Virgin Galactic joined the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 after merging with a publicly traded investment fund, giving it a potent source of new funds to compete with deep-pocket competitors — and publicity, with Mr. Branson marking its trading debut at the exchange in one of the company’s flight suits.

But while Virgin Galactic has sought to keep pace with the likes of Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin, Mr. Branson has downplayed any rivalry between the two. “I know nobody will believe me when I say it, but honestly, there isn’t,” he told The Today Show earlier this week.

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