It took the better part of twenty years, but innovator and mogul Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will finally make its voyage to the edge of space on Sunday, 11th July 2021.
The company made the announcement just after the American Federal Aviation Association (FAA) formally issued a commercial spaceflight license to the company.
Branson’s upcoming flight is the culmination of over seventeen years’ worth of research and development by a specialized team of aeronautic engineers.
The Virgin Galactic founder will be a passenger aboard Unity, the rocket plane which has been under development by scientists and engineers in the United States. If successful, Unity’s flight will be a step forward in Branson’s long-term goal to offer spaceflight on a commercial basis.
In Virgin Galactic’s official announcement of the upcoming launch date, Branson stated: “The new commercial space industry is poised to open the Universe to humankind and change the world for good.”
Along with Branson, the Unity test crew will also include Virgin Galactic executive Sirisha Bandla, chief astronaut trainer Beth Moses, and lead operations engineer Colin Bennett. In addition, pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci will be controlling the cockpit for the flight.
Virgin Galactic’s Unity spacecraft will soar to an altitude of 90km or 295,000ft away from the earth’s surface.
At that height, passengers can experience zero-gravity conditions for several minutes while enjoying a magnificent view of the Earth beyond their windows.
Opening space to humanity
Branson has stated that space belongs to all of humanity, and he has long had a dream of transforming spaceflight to become accessible to all and foster unity among nations.
At present, numerous people have already expressed an interest in taking a trip to space. Nearly 600 have already made a downpayment to secure a place on the next possible flight out. But the price of the flight is anything but cheap: a seat on a commercial space shuttle or capsule flyer can easily cost $250,000.
Stealing a march vs. the competition
While Branson’s 11th July flight is still dependent on weather conditions and potential technical issues, he and the Virgin Galactic team have already stolen a march against their closest competitor, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.
The maiden flight of Bezos’ New Shepard booster and space capsule craft is slated for 20th July – a good nine days after Unity takes off. His brother Marc and octogenarian astronaut Wally Funk, set to become the oldest space traveler in history, will join Bezos. In addition, a third passenger purchased a slot on the launch team for $20 million at an auction. This passenger’s identity has yet to be disclosed.
Branson and Bezos aren’t the only entrepreneurs with their eyes on the stars. Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk has the Dragon initiative, which currently has several missions to space lined up. Russia, one of the key players in the space race of the 1960s, is also stepping into the commercial space flight scene via the private company Axion. The company was founded by a former NASA employee and International Space Station (ISS) veteran.