Richard Branson goes to space

By Jackie Wattles, Fernando Alfonso III and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 4:39 PM ET, Sun July 11, 2021
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10:02 a.m. ET, July 11, 2021

Is Richard Branson really going to space?

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

This is a question a lot of space nerds — and, apparently, Jeff Bezos' team at Blue Origin — care a lot about.

There is no single definition of "outer space." And deciding where space begins is largely an exercise in pinpointing exactly where the Earth's atmosphere becomes less troublesome than the Earth's gravitational pull. But there is no exact altitude where that happens. The atmosphere thins out, but the "vacuum of space" is never really devoid of matter entirely. It's a blurry line.

Where does space begin? Does it begin when you look up, and the sky goes from blue to dark and speckled with stars? What about when you just go so high enough that you float, like you see with astronauts on the space station?

Well astronauts on the space station don't float because they're so high up, it's because they're in orbit. To put it plainly, according to NASA, emphasis ours:

An orbiting spacecraft moves at the right speed so the curve of its fall matches the curve of Earth. Because of this, the spacecraft keeps falling toward the ground but never hits it. As a result, they fall around the planet. The moon stays in orbit around Earth for this same reason. The moon also is falling around Earth.

And while Branson and his crew won't be going into orbit, they will be experiencing microgravity, as they freefall from the peak of their journey, very similar to what astronauts experience on the ISS. Except they're not moving at over 17,000 mph like the people on the ISS, so the SpaceShipTwo will come screaming back down to Earth rather than continuously circling the planet.

But when it comes to suborbital — AKA flights that don't drum up enough speed to enter Earth's orbit — Branson and Bezos' space companies are fixated on what altitude they reach.

Branson's flight today is expected to reach more than 50 miles high, which is the altitude the US government considers the beginning of outer space.

Bezos' flight on July 20 will hit more than 62 miles high — also known as the Kármán line — which is the altitude internationally recognized as the boundary.

Exactly which is correct — the US-accepted 50-mile mark or the internationally accepted 62-mile Kármán line — is widely debated and mostly arbitrary.

But when we say the international community "recognizes" or "accepts" the 62-mile Kármán line as the edge of space, we're mostly talking about one organization: The the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, which keeps track of world records in spaceflight such as tallying how many people have become astronauts.

But even the FAI has said it's considered changing its definition to the US-recognized 50-mile mark in response to research from Jonathan McDowell with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

What you should know: It's not a huge deal. And people that fly on Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin — both US-based companies — will still be in the American-recognized version of outer space. (Though it should be noted, neither company is sending passengers to orbit.)

Still, Blue Origin took the opportunity on Friday to make the outer-space-definition debacle into a Twitter argument.

10:00 a.m. ET, July 11, 2021

Richard Branson is set to fly to space today. Here's what you should know about the billionare.

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Richard Branson, seen here at an air show in 2012, is a self-made billionaire who has a large conglomerate of businesses under the Virgin brand.
Richard Branson, seen here at an air show in 2012, is a self-made billionaire who has a large conglomerate of businesses under the Virgin brand. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

Richard Branson is a 70-year-old British billionaire and the founder and chair of the Virgin Group, that is an umbrella of companies, including but not limited to Virgin airlines and Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company that is taking him to space Sunday.

Born in Surrey, England, he is married to Joan Branson, and is a father to three children, Holly, Sam and Clare Sarah, who was born in 1979 and died the same year.

He has also received a knighthood for his contribution to entrepreneurship in 1999.

Widely known for his flamboyant flair, Richard Branson has also crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a hot-air balloon and the English Channel in record time for an amphibian vehicle. He was also the oldest person to kitesurf across the Channel in 2012.

He announced Virgin Galactic in 2004, with the aim of sending passengers to space by 2008, and had then set the price for each ticket at $200,000.

But the plans have had to wait 17 years before the company was able to announce that it is ready for its first flight on Sunday.

Still, more than 600 people have agreed to pay between $200,000 and $250,000 to reserve a seat aboard one of the company's space planes, and Virgin Galactic said it's expecting a massive influx of new ticket orders when it reopens sales — at a higher price point — in the near future.

In 2004, during the announcement of Virgin Galactic, Branson said the project could lead to further space-related projects.

"The orbital hotel will happen," he told reporters then. Although 17 years have passed, the company has not released further plans for an orbiting hotel.

9:59 a.m. ET, July 11, 2021

Richard Branson's pre-flight meeting with Elon Musk

Richard Branson spent his morning hanging out with fellow billionaire and space baron Elon Musk.

It's a show of solidarity between two of the most prominent figures in the commercial space industry amid deepening tensions between Branson and Jeff Bezos.

10:25 a.m. ET, July 11, 2021

Today's flight is taking off from a town called Truth or Consequences. Here's how it got its name.

Cars drive through the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Cars drive through the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. (Christina Horsten/picture alliance/Getty Images)

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, will attempt to make history when his company's VSS Unity takes off in New Mexico today.

The flight is taking off from a facility in a small town called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

The city — which was once known as Hot Springs – has a year-round population of about 6,000, according to Sierra County.

The small city changed its name in 1950 as part of a publicity stunt to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the radio game show “Truth or Consequences."

The staff of the show sought a town willing to change its name for the anniversary broadcast — and Hot Springs held a special election to officially become Truth or Consequences, the county explains on its website. The motion passed 1,294 to 295.

After the broadcast, the host of the show, Ralph Edwards, vowed to come back the following year, and eventually returned every year, according to the county.

9:53 a.m. ET, July 11, 2021

Richard Branson: "I'm just going to enjoy every single minute of it"

From CNN's Rachel Crane and Aditi Sangal

Ahead of his upcoming trip to space, British billionaire Richard Branson spoke to CNN and said he is "going to enjoy every single minute of it."

"I'm not nervous. I'm obviously always nervous of letting the rest of the team down. I'm going up as someone there to test the customer experience. And I'm just going to enjoy every single minute of it," he said.

Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 on the premise that a privately developed spacecraft would make it possible for hundreds of people to become astronauts, no NASA training required.

"I think millions and millions of people out there would want to take my seat," he told CNN, adding that he is excited that this could be the "start for thousands of people who could become astronauts in future years."

After 17 years of building and testing, Branson says he was excited to hear the efforts of Virgin Galactic's team are ready for launch.

"I've managed to avoid getting excited for 17 years since we started building spaceships and motherships and space boards and all these things," he said. "I finally got the call from chief engineers saying that every single box had been ticked on the safety aspect ... And I hit the roof."

Watch more:

9:48 a.m. ET, July 11, 2021

Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk: What to know about their space ventures

From CNN's Jackie Wattles and Alyssa Kraus

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

If today's launch is successful, British billionaire Richard Branson is going to beat former CEO and founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos to space by nine days. This will make Branson the first billionaire to travel to space aboard a spacecraft he helped fund.

Bezos and Branson's efforts have often been called the "billionaire space race," as both men are competing to develop, test and launch suborbital rockets that can take customers to space. However, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's name is also often thrown around in the "space race" game — even though he hasn't indicated that he wants to join them in the void anytime soon.

Combined, Bezos, Branson and Musk have a net worth of $400 billion, roughly the size of the GDP of the entire nation of Ireland. Similarly, all three men have dedicated large sums of money to their space travel ventures — although each one has slightly different goals.

So, how do these billionaires compare when it comes to space travel?

Jeff Bezos:

  • Background: Bezos has always taken things slow when it comes to space travel. Upon founding Blue Origin in 2000, Bezos gave the company the motto "gradatim ferociter," a Latin phrase that translates to "step by step, ferociously." Moreover, Blue Origin's mascot is a tortoise, a reference to the tortoise and the hare fable.
  • Goals: Bezos' long-term goal is to send people to live and work in spinning, orbital space colonies to extend human life after Earth reaches a theoretical, far-off energy scarcity crisis. The company has also laid out plans for a lunar lander and hopes to establish a moon base. 
  • Progress: Bezos's start in the space tourism industry has been with New Shepard — Blue Origin's fully autonomous, reusable, suborbital rocket. It was originally intended to help with lunar lander technology, but it will soon be used to take paying customers to space. On July 20, Bezos and three crew members will be the first passengers aboard a New Shepard capsule.

Richard Branson:

  • Background: Although there is speculation that Branson rearranged test flight plans to beat Bezos to space, Virgin Galactic has already received regulatory approval to conduct the flight, while Bezos' Blue Origin has not — although Virgin Galactic does not have a spotless record. In 2014, the company's SpaceShipTwo killed a co-pilot, and a series of technical difficulties had to be ironed out in following test flights.
  • Goals: Branson's short-term goal is similar to Bezos, with a focus on space tourism and taking customers on flights to space. Virgin Galactic has spoken of longer term goals, including a suborbital, supersonic jet that can shuttle people between cities at breakneck speeds.
  • Progress: Unlike Blue Origin's fully autonomous rocket and capsule, Virgin Galactic's space plane requires two pilots, meaning it has already sent people into space on test flights. Therefore, the company has made astronauts of five people, while every Blue Origin flight thus far has had nobody inside.

Elon Musk:

  • Background: SpaceX, founded by Musk in 2002, is usually seen as the frontrunner in the space industry. The company has already flown NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, and placed a constellation of over 1,000 internet-beaming satellites into orbit.
  • Goals: SpaceX is working on developing and building a spaceship that will take humans to the moon and Mars, among other projects.
  • Progress: SpaceX is one of the few "new space" companies has built rockets capable of shuttling satellites and other cargo into Earth's orbit. SpaceX has also figured out how to land and reuse much of its hardware after flight, won massive contracts with the US military and NASA, and is building its own company town in Texas, named Starbase, devoted to development of rockets it says are intended for Mars travel. In comparison, Bezos and Branson are quite literally only scratching the surface of space. However, Musk has not traveled to space, nor has he expressed interest in doing so anytime soon.
9:45 a.m. ET, July 11, 2021

Branson bikes to the spaceport

Richard Branson's chosen mode of transportation to Spaceport America this morning?

A bicycle.

Branson arrived just after sunrise to the launch site — which includes a sprawling futuristic building — to begin pre-launch preparations.

9:40 a.m. ET, July 11, 2021

How risky is Richard Branson's trip to space?

From CNN's Jackie Wattles and Alyssa Kraus

Richard Branson is interviewed at New York Stock Exchange, in 2019.
Richard Branson is interviewed at New York Stock Exchange, in 2019. (Richard Drew/AP)

If all goes according to plan, billionaire Richard Branson will be heading to space today with the help of his company, Virgin Galactic.

After working to perfect the spacecraft for over two decades, Branson will be the first billionaire to ever travel to space aboard a vehicle he helped fund, beating Amazon founder Jeff Bezos by only nine days.

So, how risky is this flight to space?

Here's a breakdown of the risks Branson and his crew will face:

The possibilities are endless when it comes to potential dangers: The rocket motor could fail to light up. The cabin could lose pressure and threaten the passengers' lives. And the intense physics involved when hurtling out of — and back into — the Earth's atmosphere could tear the vehicle apart.

However, the spacecraft Branson will be boarding, otherwise known as the VSS Unity, has had three successful test flights. In May 2021, Virgin Galactic received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to begin flying passengers. It is important to note, however, that the FAA mainly focuses on ensuring the safety of people and property on the ground. Thus, this approval does not necessarily guarantee that the spacecraft is safe.

In the years before the FAA's approval, multiple test flights ran amuck, including one in 2014 that left a pilot dead and another seriously injured. In 2019, a seal on the space plane's wing had come undone during a test flight, and in a December 2020 test flight, VSS Unity's onboard rocket motor computer lost connection.

Markus Guerster, an aerospace industry professional who co-authored a 2018 paper on the risks of suborbital space tourism, told us that there is never a perfect time for a company to deem its spacecraft safe enough to fly members of the public.

"It's kind of a difficult decision to make — if you're ready, or if you're not ready, because there is some risk remaining. But if you don't try it, you're also not going to learn," Guerster said. "I think the first group of people who will fly on this acknowledge the risk. There are plenty people out there who climb Mount Everest."

From the time the mothership leaves the ground to the time the spacecraft lands back down on it, Branson's trip should only take roughly an hour. Unlike traditional space travel where astronauts circle the Earth and float in space for days, Virgin Galactic's flights are brief, up-and-down trips. But the spacecraft will go more than 50 miles above Earth, which the US government considers to mark the boundary of outer space.

Read more about the dangers of Branson's flight here.

9:35 a.m. ET, July 11, 2021

You'll hear about Virgin Galactic a lot today. Here's what you need to know about the company.

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

British billionaire Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, with the aim to offer commercial flights into space.

It spent nearly two decades to develop a rocket-powered space plane on the premise that privately developed spacecraft would make it possible for hundreds of people to become astronauts, no NASA training required. 

The company's approach to space is quite a bit different from most of its rivals. Instead of exclusively relying on rockets to propel people straight from the ground and into outer space, it relies on a mothership-and-spacecraft concept.

What that means: Virgin Galactic's initial spacecraft, named SpaceShipTwo by the company, is first carried to about 50,000 feet by a bizarre-looking twin-fuselage mothership, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. When it's at the right location and altitude, SpaceShipTwo is dropped from in between WhiteKnightTwo's fuselages, at which point the spacecraft's own rocket motor ignites, taking it to over 50 miles – or 264,000 feet – above the ground.

There are two main reasons for the unusual setup. Being able to re-use your spacecraft is of utmost priority for space companies, as having to build a new one from scratch after just one use would get prohibitively expensive, and having both the mothership and the spacecraft land on a runway is both relatively convenient and cost-efficient. At the same time, Virgin Galactic hasn't had to develop complex autonomous rocket landing systems, as SpaceX has chosen to do.

Lifting the spacecraft up 50,000 feet in the air before launching it has other advantages, too. Enabling runway takeoffs also helps with convenience and cost, as well as potential safety benefits. Lighting a rocket on the ground leaves little room for error, after all.

Virgin Galactic began trading on the New York Stock exchange in 2019, trading under the ticker "SPCE."

Virgin Galactic had planned to start flying customers years ago, but its development program was set back by several mishaps, including a 2014 test fight accident that resulted in the death of a co-pilot.