Space tourism experts are racing to launch their rockets in July, with Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo scheduled to take off on Sunday with the British entrepreneur on board less than a week ahead of rival and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ rocket.
The Virgin Galactic space plane, which Branson’s extraterrestrial venture plans to launch on Sunday morning, is aiming for a peak height of 55 miles above Earth.
Branson will accompany two pilots and three other passengers on the high-profile launch of Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 spacecraft, to be broadcast live from Spaceport America in New Mexico marshes. The show will be hosted from terra by comedian Stephen Colbert.
Several minutes of weightlessness will be experienced when the capsule flies from launch to landing, according to the company.
Nine days after his long-awaited debut in space, Bezos will launch his rocket New Shepard, named in honor of the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard. Built by Bezos’ company, Blue Origin builds Bezos’ rocket.
Bezos will travel with five other people, including his brother Mark and Wally Funk, who was refused the job of astronaut in the 1960s because she was a woman, roughly 62 miles above the Earth’s surface.
The flight will also include an unnamed passenger who paid $28 million in an auction for their trip last month.
The controversy has centered on whether Branson’s space flight counts as space travel.
For years, controversy has swirled around the Kármán line, a boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.
A number of organizations, including the Swiss aeronautics standard setter Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, define the Kármán line as 100 kilometers (62 miles; 330,000 feet) above Earth’s mean sea level.
However, Nasa claims astronauts are only considered astronauts who cross a line that is 50 miles, or 80 kilometers, above sea level.
Apparently stung that Branson is taking advantage of the “first” moment for public space travel, Bezos’s Blue Origin took to Twitter to make digs about whether Unity 22 is going to space, instead of just being an edge of space flight.
“Our astronauts will not have an asterisk beside their name due to New Shepard being designed to fly above the Kármán line from the beginning,” SpaceX said in a tweet Friday.
The Kármán line is 100 kilometers above the ground for 96% of the global population.
This is Virgin Galactic’s 22nd launch of the VSS Unity rocket plane, although the first to carry passengers instead of crew. The company didn’t participate in the social media drama, instead promoting the launch and hosting a question and answer thread with the Unity 22 crew.
Bradley’s spaceplane will be launched by a twin-fuselage carrier jet to a height of 50,000 feet, where the Unity craft on board will be released and rocketed to an almost vertical ascent throughout the outer atmosphere.
Bezos’s flight on 20 July will coincide with the 52nd anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing, as Blue Origin’s capsule will launch vertically atop a reusable rocket from west Texas.
I honestly don’t believe this is a race from space to the moon, Branson had told CNN Business on 2 July.
Jeff would love to watch our flight off with me. I would love to go and watch his flight, and I think we will wish each other well,” he continued.
Besides Branson, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and VP of research, government affairs and operations Sirisha Bandla will also fly with Branson.
Since he founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, Branson has been working toward sending a rocket into space and creating an “orbital hotel”.
Using a hot-air balloon to cross the Atlantic in 1987, and his boat setting a new record for crossing the ocean in 1986, Branson was rescued both times.
An earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over California’s Mojave desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.
A growing number of people are becoming interested in space tourism. There are 600 reserved seats at $250,000 each for people planning to fly in the future, according to Virgin Galactic. In anticipation of commercial service commencing in 2022, the company will launch two additional flights.
In the space tourism market, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk leads the way with his SpaceX business, but Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin also compete.
Musk tweeted Branson on Saturday morning to wish him best for the launch. In addition to attending the launch site, Musk is expected to join via the internet.
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 10, 2021
A number of flights to the International Space Station have already been launched by SpaceX, which is launching its first civilian crew into orbit (without Musk) in September.