Virgin Galactic said Monday that it no longer plans to conduct a key test flight of its spacecraft this week because of a surge in new Covid-19 cases and resulting related restrictions in New Mexico, home to the company’s glitzy spaceport.
Branson’s brief joy ride was more than two decades in the making. He founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 with the goal of creating a winged spacecraft capable of taking up to eight people, including two pilots and six passengers, on rocket-powered flights that reach more than 50 miles above Earth, which the US government considers the boundary marking outer space.
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, as the spaceplane is called, conducted more than 20 test flights, three of which reached the edge of space and made five Virgin Galactic employees into pin-carrying astronauts. But Branson’s flight made him the first billionaire founder of space company to actually travel into space aboard a vehicle he helped fund.
Branson’s flight took off from Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Virgin Galactic’s livestream is here, and CNN Business will also be sharing the livestream and our running live blog with updates is here.
Here’s everything you need to know.
Branson brought three colleagues along for the ride. They include:
- Beth Moses, who holds the title of Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic and will handle the training for all of the company’s future customers. She’s flown to space on VSS Unity once before, during a 2019 test flight. Moses, an aerospace engineer, won’t just be along for the ride. She’ll be ensuring her fellow passengers stay safe and ensure that Virgin Galactic collects all the data it needs because this flight will be, at the end of the day, still a test flight.
- Colin Bennett, who is the company’s lead operations engineer. Bennett will help evaluate the overall experience and ensure the cabin equipment is in good shape.
- Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research. Bandla will be on board for the science. Virgin Galactic frequently flies experiments to makes use of the microgravity environment, and on this flight Bandla will be handling a University of Florida research project that involves handling “handheld fixation tubes,” according to the company.
Virgin Galactic says that Branson’s job was to use his “observations from his flight training and spaceflight experience to enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers,” according to the company.
When most people think about spaceflight, they think about an astronaut circling the Earth, floating in space, for at least a few days.
That is not what Branson was doing on VSS Unity, which is the only operational SpaceShipTwo spaceplane that Virgin Galactic has in its arsenal, though the company is building others.
VSS Unity’s flight path was a wild trip, in general. Rather than taking off vertically from a launch pad like most rockets, the space plane took off from a runway near Virgin Galactic’s “spaceport” in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico on Sunday morning. (The former town of Hot Springs, New Mexico, changed its named to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, as part of a 1950s publicity stunt for a radio show and the name has stuck ever since).
VSS Unity was affixed to a massive mothership, called WhiteKnightTwo, that looks like two sleek jets attached at the tip of their wings. The mothership took about 45 minutes to cruise along and slowly climb with VSS Unity to about 50,000 feet. Then, when the pilots gave the go-ahead, SpaceShipTwo dropped from between WhiteKnightTwo’s two fuselages and fired up its rocket engine, swooping directly upward and roaring past the speed of sound.
VSS Unity is a suborbital space plane, meaning it didn’t drum up enough speed to escape the pull of Earth’s gravity. Instead, it’ll rocket at more than three times the speed of sound — about 2,300 miles per hour — to more than 50 miles above ground. At the top of the flight path, Branson and his fellow passengers briefly experienced weightlessness. It’s like an extended version of the weightlessness you experience when you reach the peak of a roller coaster hill, just before gravity brings your cart — or, in Branson’s case, your space plane -— gliding back down toward the ground.
After about a minute the engine shut off, leaving the spacecraft and the passengers suspended in microgravity as SpaceShipTwo rolled onto its belly and offered the passengers sweeping views of the Earth below and the inky black void above.
To conclude the trip, SpaceShipTwo used what’s called a feathering system to raise its wings, mimicking the shape of a badminton shuttlecock to reorient the vehicle as it begins to fall back to Earth. It then lowered its wings as it glides back down to a runway landing.
How is this different from what SpaceX and Blue Origin do?
Bezos’ Blue Origin took a far different approach for its suborbital space tourism rocket. The company’s New Shepard vehicle is a capsule and rocket system that fires off vertically from a launch pad, sending passengers on a screaming 11-minute flight to more than 60 miles high before the capsule deploys parachutes to bring them gently back down.
But when the companies begin commercial operations, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic will be direct competitors. They’re both after the demographic of ultra-wealthy thrill seekers willing to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars to experience a supersonic gut punch and a few minutes of weightlessness.
Elon Musk — the other, other space billionaire — is running a far different operation than what Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic will put on display this month.
First off, SpaceX builds orbital rockets. Orbital rockets need to drum up enough power to hit at least 17,000 miles per hour, or what’s known as orbital velocity, essentially giving a spacecraft enough energy to continue whipping around the Earth rather than being dragged immediately back down by gravity. That’s how SpaceX is able to put satellites into orbit or carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Though Branson’s other company — Virgin Orbit — has put a rocket in orbit, and Bezos’ Blue Origin plans to get there eventually with a rocket called New Glenn, neither company has made quite the headlines or the waves in the space sector as SpaceX has.
How risky is this?
Space travel is, historically, fraught with danger. Though the risks are not necessarily astronomical for Branson’s jaunt to suborbital space, as Virgin Galactic has spent the better part of the last two decade running its space planes through test flights.
Still, any time a human straps themselves onto a rocket, there are risks involved — and Branson has apparently decided that, for him, it’s worth it.
“You’ve got to remember that Virgin Galactic has people on every spaceflight…The fact that I’m willing to fly with those people shows confidence,” Branson told CNN Business’ Rachel Crane. “I think the least the founder of the company can do is go up there and fly with his people.”
How to watch
Virgin Galactic’s livestream of the launch began at 10:30 am eastern, a 90 minute delay from its originally scheduled time thanks to high winds last night. The launch was livestreamed on Virgin Galactic’s website.