The age of space tourism is set to reach a new dawn tomorrow, with Virgin Galactic planning to launch its first fully crewed test flight. A six-person crew will be onboard the rocket-powered VSS Unity for the momentous occasion, including Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson. With the countdown edging ever closer to the big moment, let’s take a look at everything you need to know ahead of this new dawn in space tourism.
What is Virgin Galactic?
Let’s start from the beginning, by establishing what exactly Virgin Galactic is, and what its goals are. The company was founded by billionaire British businessman Sir Richard Branson in 2004. Of course, this is far from Branson’s first venture when it comes to things that fly. Indeed, he is perhaps best known for having founded long-haul airline Virgin Atlantic.
Branson’s core aim for Virgin Galactic is to be able to provide sub-orbital space flights for paying ‘space tourists.’ These will help a lucky few people realize the dream of commercial space travel, unlocking the wonders of space for more than just trained astronauts.
Virgin Galactic has established bases in two US states. In California, it has made its home at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Meanwhile, more than 800 miles (1,300 km) away in New Mexico, Spaceport America opened in 2011 and was completed as a whole in 2019.
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When is the flight?
Last month, Virgin Galactic achieved a major milestone when the Federal Aviation Administration granted it approval to operate passenger-carrying space flights. This came after the FAA updated the company’s operating license to include passengers.
Join us July 11th for our first fully crewed rocket powered test flight, and the beginning of a new space age.
The countdown begins. #Unity22
https://t.co/5UalYT7Hjb. @RichardBranson pic.twitter.com/ZL9xbCeWQX
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) July 1, 2021
Following this crucial administrative step, Virgin Galactic has not wasted any time in pushing forward with its program. This has culminated in the company setting a date for its first-ever full-crewed, rocket-powered sub-orbital flight, namely July 11th, 2021.
Specifically, Virgin Galactic plans to commence this momentous journey from its New Mexico base at 07:00 local time. This corresponds to 06:00 PT, 09:00 ET, 13:00 UTC, and 14:00 BST. The spacecraft in question will be launched from VMS EVE, a carrier mothership.
What’s the aim of this flight?
While Virgin Galactic has made crewed sub-orbital flights before, this will be the first to feature a full crew. The company plans to stream the exciting event on its website and social media channels. With more people onboard, Virgin Galactic will be able to carry out several tasks, with the goal of helping the company to prepare for its commercial space flights.
These procedures will include various evaluations of the spacecraft’s cabin in terms of its suitability for carrying passengers when fully crewed. The company states that these aspects will include “the cabin environment, seat comfort, the weightless experience, and the views of Earth that the spaceship delivers.” It explains further that its goal is:
“…to ensure every moment of the astronaut’s journey maximizes the wonder and awe created by space travel.”
What spacecraft will the flight use?
The spacecraft that will make tomorrow’s ground-breaking flight will be the VSS Unity. This is the second example of the Scaled Composites Model 339 ‘SpaceShipTwo’ (SS2). The first of these was VSS Enterprise, which was destroyed in an October 2014 test flight crash that killed one pilot, Michael Alsbury, and injured the other, Peter Siebold.
After losing Enterprise, Virgin Galactic unveiled the VSS Unity in February 2016. British physicist chose the name Unity, and the eye logo on its side is also based on Hawking’s eye. Unity, like its predecessor Enterprise, is an air-launched spaceplane, and will be taken up to launch altitude by a carrier mothership called VMS Eve (named after Branson’s mother).
What have Unity’s flights to date been?
Given the nature of how such spacecraft are launched, Unity’s first flight did not take place under its own power. In September 2016, it was the subject of its first captive carry flight. Three months later, in December that year, it made its first successful glide.
April 2018 marked Unity’s first powered flight, and its first sub-orbital space flight followed in December that year. It has made three of these space flights thus far, with a fourth having been aborted in December 2020 before its ignition sequence commenced.
The most recent of Unity’s space flights took place in May 2021. Its missions to date have achieved speeds of up to Mach 3.04 (2,027 knots / 3,754 km/h). In terms of its sub-orbital altitude, it has flown up to 55.9 miles / 89.9 km (295,000 feet) above sea level.
Who will be onboard?
Tomorrow’s flight will contrast from those before in terms of who will be onboard. Four mission specialists will join Unity’s two pilots for the spacecraft’s groundbreaking journey. These include Sirisha Bandla (VP Government Affairs and Research Operations), Colin Bennett (Lead Operations Engineer), and Beth Moses (Chief Astronaut Instructor).
These individuals will be responsible for evaluating various aspects of Unity’s onboard experience, with its upcoming use for commercial space tourism flights in mind. The fourth mission specialist is none other than Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, who “will evaluate the private astronaut experience.” He states that:
“As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honoured to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.”
Tomorrow’s mission will be known by the name Unity 22. Interestingly, this will see Branson take to space nine days before fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos does so as part of the New Shephard NS-16 mission.
If Unity 22 proves successful, Virgin Galactic will be one step closer to achieving its goal of enabling commercial space tourism. Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic revealed a new SpaceShip III class spacecraft, named VSS Imagine. A second, named VSS Inspire, is on order.
As far as passengers are concerned, Virgin Galactic is currently allowing prospective space tourists to register their interest on its website. These people will then be informed when the company makes “a limited number of tickets available for future spaceflights” later this year. All being well, Virgin Galactic hopes “to commence commercial service in 2022.”
What do you make of Virgin Galactic’s upcoming space flight? Would you partake in space tourism if the opportunity arose? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.