Virgin Galactic is about to launch four people into space, including the company's founder, Billionaire Richard Branson.
Since December 2018, the corporation has flown three times on its reusable, winged rocket plane, SpaceShipTwo. However, only Virgin Galactic pilots were on two of those trips. Only one of the flights had passengers on board.
The VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo plane is scheduled to fly the company's first full crew more than 50 miles above the Earth on Sunday. The journey will last around 90 minutes in total, with the "weightless" period — when the ship reaches the top of its suborbital route — lasting roughly four minutes, according to previous Unity flights.
During a test flight for space travel, over California's Mojave Desert in 2014, a previous prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket jet crashed, killing one pilot and critically wounding another.
How to watch the Virgin Galactic test flight?
The 70-year-old Branson, Virgin Galactic CEO, and the rest of his Unity 22 crew will board Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spacecraft vehicle at Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. According to the company's Twitter feed, the live broadcast will begin at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT). On this page, the Space.com homepage, and directly from Virgin Galactic, you'll be able to watch the transmission live.
The important timing milestones of the mission have yet to be revealed by Virgin Galactic. VSS Unity will lift off beneath the wings of its carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, sometime on Sunday morning. Eve will dump Unity at a height of around 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), and the space plane will make its own way to suborbital space. Both Eve and Unity will return to Spaceport Americus for landings.
Who is going to be on Branson's flight?
Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic's primary astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, Virgin Galactic's lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, the company's vice president of government affairs and research operations, will be among Branson's fellow passengers. VSS Unity will be piloted by Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, while VMS Eve will be piloted by C.J. Sturckow and Kelly Latimer.
How will it work?
At a height of 50,000 feet, the vehicle is released from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane (15.5 kilometers). SpaceShipTwo burns its rocket engine for 70 seconds after separation to accelerate to 2,500 mph (4,000 km/h).
The booster rocket is turned off, and the ship rises. Passengers cross the Karman Line at 328,000 feet (100 kilometers), where fliers are considered astronauts. At 361,000 feet, the craft achieves its maximum altitude (110 km).
Passengers will feel weightless for five minutes. For re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, SpaceShipTwo's rudders are set to "feathered" mode to increase drag and reduce friction heating.
The rudders are de-feathered into a gliding position at 70,000 feet (22.9 kilometers). For landing on a normal runway, landing gear and skid are deployed.
Bragging rights for Virgin Galactic?
Despite the fact that the trip is being hailed as a potentially pivotal point in the transformation of citizen rocket travel into a mainstream commercial activity, spaceflight remains a risky endeavor.
During a test flight over California's Mojave Desert in 2014, a previous prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket jet crashed, killing one pilot and critically wounding another.
If It is a successful flight, Sir Richard Branson will be able to brag about beating off rival Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin space venture in what has been dubbed the "billionaire space race." Bezos, the founder of online retailer Amazon.com, is scheduled to ride aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital rocket ship later this month.
"It's honestly not a race," Branson told Reuters in an interview earlier this week. "If it's a race, it's a race to produce wonderful spaceships that can make many more people be able to access space. And I think that's both of our aims."
What does the future have in store?
Virgin Galactic has indicated it planned two more test flights of the spaceplane before launching commercial service next year, assuming the trip goes well.
The company has received more than 600 aircraft reservations, with each ticket costing roughly $250,000, but it intends to reduce the cost of each seat to $40,000 in the future.