Sir Richard Branson is expected to briefly leave Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday, risking everything to usher in a new era of space tourism that has been propelled by a commercial space industry backed by billionaires.
“We’ve spent 17 years trying to get to this point,” Branson said in an interview with ABC News’s “Good Morning America” last week. “I am expecting the most amazing trip of my life and, by creating it myself, an amazing trip of a lifetime for other people in the future.”
If all goes well, Branson will beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos – who revealed he was launching via his own rocket on July 20 – in just over a week. While Branson has said he doesn’t consider it a “race,” his own spaceflight announcement came just hours after Bezos revealed he was bringing a female pilot whose dreams of being an astronaut in the 60s have been postponed.
The two launches ten days apart leave some wondering if these billionaires are “democratizing space” as they claim, or looking to brag here on Earth. Yet, as with all spaceflight, bands of viewers around the world should go online – and there is no guarantee of safety as the ultra-rich are using themselves as guinea pigs for their space travel ventures.
Here’s what you need to know about Branson’s trip to the edge of space, set to take off Sunday morning.
What is going on and how to watch
Branson, 70, will take off aboard the first fully crewed flight of his privately-owned space transport company Virgin Galactic. The space flight will be broadcast live on Virgin Galactic’s website as well as on its Twitter, YouTube and Facebook pages. ABC News will also broadcast live coverage of the event.
The launch will take place from Spaceport America in New Mexico, and live coverage will begin at 9 a.m. ET on Sunday.
Branson will serve as a mission specialist on what is dubbed the Unity 22 mission, the company’s fourth crewed space flight on its VSS Unity spacecraft. Branson will be joined in space by colleagues from Virgin Galactic: Beth Moses (chief astronaut instructor), Colin Bennet (senior operations engineer) and Sirisha Bandla (vice president of government affairs and research operations).
Pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci will pilot the spacecraft, while CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer will pilot the aircraft from which the spacecraft will depart.
Branson’s role is to assess the private astronaut experience to prepare future clients, which Virgin Galactic plans to do from 2022.
R&B singer Khalid tweeted on Friday that he would be at the launch and release a new song.
The VSS Unity spacecraft is launched from a custom built “mother ship”, the VMS Eve, which takes off from a conventional runway. At an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet, the spacecraft will be released from the aircraft and enter a glide flight to the edges of space where those on board can experience a few minutes of microgravity, as well as new views of the air. Earth and space. Previous test flights for the spacecraft reached an altitude of 55.5 miles.
As gravity pulls the spacecraft back to Earth’s upper atmosphere, the astronauts will return to their seats to re-enter. Eventually, the spacecraft will return to Spaceport America for a runway landing. Branson has said in previous interviews that the flight will last around 1.5 hours in total.
Virgin Galactic has faced criticism, including Bezos’ Blue Origin company Twitter account, for expanding the definition of “space” because its flights do not exceed the Karman Line (62 miles above earth) which is defined by many – but not all – as the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.
Neither Blue Origin nor Virgin Galactic flights will reach Earth orbit, as Elon Musk’s SpaceX missions did. Musk on Twitter called it “big difference.”
The billionaires’ race to space
The race for modern commercial space has been undeniably dominated by the ultra-rich. Blue Origin founder Bezos is the richest man in the world, according to Forbes data, and SpaceX CEO Musk is the third richest. Branson’s net worth, meanwhile, is around $ 6 billion.
While this has led some to see space as a new frontier for billionaire daredevils, others have argued that increasing private sector involvement in space travel has accelerated technological advancements, saved money. money from NASA and offers the long-term potential to open up space tourism to anyone who has been curious about the cosmos.
“I truly believe space belongs to all of us,” Branson said in a statement earlier this month announcing his space flight. “After 17 years of research, engineering and innovation, the new commercial space industry is poised to open the universe to humanity and change the world for good.”
Virgin Galactic said its mission is to “democratize space” and increase accessibility. Its original ticket price, however, was $ 250,000. Bezos, meanwhile, has auctioned off a seat on his upcoming Blue Origin flight for $ 28 million.
While the pandemic has shed light on the country’s wealth inequality and deepened the divide between the haves and have-nots, not everyone supports billionaires in the same way Americans supported astronauts in the days of ‘Apollo. A Change.org petition calling for Bezos to stay in space made headlines and over 150,000 signatures.
Animosity has been exacerbated by recent reports of how Bezos and Musk have avoided paying income taxes.
Earlier this year, progressive Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Responded to one of Musk’s tweets about a “multiplanetary” future, calling on him to “focus on Earth.”
“Space travel is an exciting idea, but right now we need to focus on Earth and create a progressive tax system so children don’t go hungry, people aren’t homeless and all Americans have health care, ”Sanders wrote. “The level of inequality in America is obscene and a threat to our democracy.”