SIR Richard Branson will fly to space this weekend.
The British mogul, 70, is aiming to beat former Amazon boss Jeff Bezos to the stars in what has been dubbed the “billionaire space race”.
- Get all the latest Science news
- Keep up-to-date with the top Space & Astronomy stories
- All the latest Archaelogy news from dinosaurs to Ancient artefacts
Why is Sir Richard flying to space?
Sir Richard’s space tourism firm Virgin Galactic announced on July 1 that its CEO will be on their July 11 flight to the edge of space.
“After more than 16 years of research, engineering, and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry, which is set to open space to humankind and change the world for good,” Sir Richard said in a statement.
“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.”
The flight will be Virgin Galactic’s fourth test spaceflight and its first mission with a full crew of six on board.
Sir Richard says he will fly to space with Virgin Galactic on July 11[/caption]
The six-person crew of mission Unity 22, which includes Sir Richard[/caption]
Sir Richard has long talked up his desire to go up on one of Virgin Galactic’s first flights.
The company was founded in 2004 with the aim of taking paying tourists to space but has been hampered by years of delays.
Sir Richard’s announcement came just days after Bezos revealed that he and his brother would be heading to space on July 20 on board a ship built by Blue Origin, a space tourism firm founded by Bezos in 2000.
The Virgin boss will be taking off with three Virgin Galactic mission specialists: Chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett, and government affairs VP Sirisha Bandla.
The craft will be flown by Virgin Galactic pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci.
Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert[/caption]
Sir Richard’s flight date, time and how to watch
The “Unity 22” mission will liftoff from Virgin Galactic’s spaceport in the New Mexico desert on July 11, according to the company.
It is expected to begin at 9:00 am ET (2:00 pm BST) on the day of the flight.
That could change last minute, however, if weather conditions are deemed unfavourable in the lead up to launch.
For the first time, Virgin Galactic will livestream the test flight for people to watch along at home.
Virgin’s rocket plane VSS Unity flies to 50,000ft strapped to a huge carrier plane[/caption]
What will happen?
Unlike most spaceflight companies, Virgin Galactic does not use a rocket to reach space.
Instead, its VSS Unity rocket plane ascends toward the heavens strapped to an enormous carrier plane called White Knight Two.
At around 50,000ft above Earth’s surface, Unity detaches from its mothership. For comparison, commercial airliners fly at 30,000ft.
Once separated, Unity fires up its rocket engines and flies at a near-vertical angle into suborbital space.
After detaching from its carrier plane, Unity blasts to the edge of space under its rocket booster[/caption]
At around 293,000ft the engine shuts down and passengers experience four minutes of weightlessness[/caption]
The craft hits around three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph or 4,300kph) until it reaches a top altitude of around 293,000ft.
After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots safely shut it down, giving riders four minutes of weightlessness.
They can peer at the Earth below through 17 enormous windows that perforate the cabin walls and ceiling.
To descend, the pilots perform a gradual backflip and fire up the engines.
Unity returns to Earth by landing like a commercial airliner on a runway at Virgin Galactic’s spaceport in the New Mexico desert.
Unity can hold a maximum of six people[/caption]
Passengers can peer down at Earth below through the plane’s huge windows[/caption]
How safe is it?
Virgin Galactic has flown its rocket planes 23 times, though only four of these have reached the edge of space.
The spaceflights went without a hitch, according to Virgin Galactic. Tragically, the same cannot be said for all of its tests.
In October 2014, a Virgin Galactic ship crashed, killing the co-pilot and leaving the pilot seriously injured.
Witnessws described how the craft exploded in flight above the Mojave Desert in California before debris plummeted to the ground.
It crashed after firing its rocket following a high-altitude drop from the
Virgin Galactic mothership.
A Virgin Galactic ship crashed in 2014, killing the co-pilot and leaving the pilot seriously injured[/caption]
Co-pilot t Michael Alsbury was killed in the catastrophe – while the pilot, Peter Siebold, was injured after ejecting. He later recovered in hospital.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board later concluded that Alsbury prematurely unlocked the air brake used for atmospheric reentry, causing the ship to breakup.
Virgin Galactic grounded its spacecraft for two years while it worked on a new design with improved safeguards.
Since then, the company has flown its second craft, VSS Unity, a number of times without serious incident.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will be heading to space on July 20[/caption]
When are other billionaires planning space trips?
By joining the flight on July 11, Sir Richard has positioned himself to beat rival billionaire Jeff Bezos into space by nine days.
Bezos, founder of Amazon, will be on board the suborbital flight of the New Shepard spacecraft of his own private rocket company, Blue Origin, on July 20.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are competing head-to-head in the emerging space tourism business.
Musk has previously said he plans to go to space atop one of his company’s rockets but has not given a timeframe for when he expects to fly.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are competing head-to-head in the emerging space tourism business[/caption]
What is Virgin Galactic?
Here's what you need to know…
Intrepid explorers are lining up – and digging deep – to travel into space with Virgin Galactic.
British billionaire Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, initially predicted the maiden space flight would launch by 2009.
But the date has been repeatedly pushed back due to technical problems.
In 2016, the late Professor Stephen Hawking unveiled Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo craft, called VSS Unity, after the first SpaceShipTwo craft VSS Enterprise crashed during tests in 2014, killing one of its pilots.
A successful maiden flight finally took place in mid-December 2018.
If all goes to plan, space fans will be launched more than 50 miles above Earth – a point at which Nasa defines as outer space.
Passengers will ride aboard SpaceShipTwo, a spaceplane designed to carry six passengers and two pilots.
It is carried aloft by a large aeroplane before breaking away and zooming to an altitude of about 62 miles.
Passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness before Unity fires up its engines and soars back to Earth, landing on a runway like a conventional aircraft.
With a hefty price tag of $250,000 (£175,000) a ticket, the 90-minute flight is being aimed at wealthy celebrities and thrillseekers.
Sir Richard has said that “ultimately” he would like to see the price fall as low as $40,000 (£30,700) over the next decade.
Virgin Galactic is up against fierce competition in the private space race from firms such as Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
What has Sir Richard said about the flight?
Ahead of the flight on July 11, the British billionaire said his wife may be nervous but he himself wasn’t the least bit afraid.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for 17 years,” Sir Richard said in an interview on Tuesday from Spaceport America near the remote town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
He said pre-flight preparations only add to the excitement ahead of Sunday’s scheduled launch, which will be taking place one week before his 71st birthday.
“Every bit about it is a pinch-me moment,” he said.
Sir Richard says his wife may be nervous but he himself isn’t the least bit afraid[/caption]
Asked how his family reacted to the news that he would join Sunday’s crew, Sir Richard said his children – adventurous like him – were excited, but suggested his wife, Joan, while supportive, was more wary.
“My wife is the sort of person who would be terrified on a Virgin Atlantic airplane,” he said.
“She’s the last person who would want to do something like this. But she’s known me since I tried to balloon across the Atlantic or the Pacific or around the world, and she still seems to love us.”
He laughed as he quoted his wife telling him: “‘If you’re foolish enough to do these wonderful things, you can do it, but I won’t be going to your funeral.’”
Want to know more about the weird and wonderful world of science? From space and astronomy to the human body, we have you covered…
- When is the next Full Moon?
- How many bones are in the human body?
- Is Pluto a planet?
- How old is the Earth?
- What causes a volcano to erupt?
- Which sharks attack the most humans?
- What are the conspiracy theories about the world ending?
- All the UFO sightings and whether aliens are real
- Which country has the most earthquakes?
Most read in Science
In other news, scientists have identified the place where aliens are most likely lurking in the Milky Way.
Aliens may have dropped life-detecting sensors onto Earth, according to a Harvard University professor.
China has successfully launched three astronauts into orbit to build its own space station.
And, the European Space Agency has revealed it will be sending a probe called EnVision to study the planet Venus.
We pay for your stories! Do you have a story for The Sun Online Tech & Science team? Email us at [email protected]