Richard Branson, the nearly 71-year-old billionaire and founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, plans to take a test flight to space along with five Virgin Galactic crew members on Sunday. While the company has made manned test flights into space before, this will be the first one on which Branson is tagging along, as well as the first flight with a full crew. Branson had previously planned on sending himself to space later this summer, but moved up the date after fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos announced he would go to space on July 20. The publicity stunt is aimed at boosting both the nearly 17-year-old Virgin Galactic and the nascent space-tourism industry (for non-billionaires). Below are updates on the hour-ish Unity22 flight as it plays out.
How to watch the flight/spectacle
You can watch along via Virgin Galactic’s official livestream (which will be hosted by Stephen Colbert, for some reason):
Safe and sound after gliding back to the ground
Two milestones in one?
A billionaire has finally, briefly made it to (the edge of) space
After the flight lands, Khalid will perform a new song on the livestream. It’s a momentous day for the human race.
Unity22 initiates its mid-flight launch
On a flight this expensive, such legroom is to be expected
Are they actually going to space, though?
Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s spaceship company, has been downplaying the height of Branson’s test flight, claiming that because Unity22 will only reach 50 miles above the Earth, as opposed to 62 miles, it doesn’t count as “space.” CNN explains the mostly PR-based controversy:
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. …
[W]hile 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.
Branson’s flight today is expected to reach more than 50 miles high, which is the altitude the U.S. government considers the beginning of outer space. Bezos’s 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 U.S.-accepted 50-mile mark or the internationally accepted 62-mile Kármán line — is widely debated and mostly arbitrary.
SpaceShipTwo V.S.S. Unity is off the ground
The rocket-plane and the mothership plane carrying it took off from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, a little after 7:30 a.m. local time Sunday:
A diagram of the flight plan:
Branson tweeted out a shot of him and Tesla/SpaceX founder Elon Musk on Sunday morning:
A previous Virgin Galactic test flight ended in tragedy
In 2014, an earlier test flight of a SpaceShipTwo left a co-pilot dead after the craft cashed soon after liftoff. As one prominent space blogger notes, there are still real risks involved today: