Is Richard Branson going to space?
Virgin's July 11 launch will include four passengers, including Branson. ... In August 2020, Branson said he was planning on making his first trip to space in early-2021, but those plans were delayed somewhat after a computer malfunction delayed a previous Virgin Galactic test flight in February. CNBCRichard Branson vs. Jeff Bezos: How the two space-bound billionaires stack up
Who is going to space with Jeff Bezos?
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson is aiming to beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos into space by nine days. Branson's company announced Thursday evening that its next test flight will be July 11 and that its founder will be among the six people on board. Associated PressRichard Branson announces trip to space, ahead of Jeff Bezos
The mission – with two pilots guiding spacecraft VSS Unity carrying Branson alongside three Virgin Galactic employees – plans to launch on July 11 from the company's operations hub at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Not only does the flight represent Branson's long-awaited trip to space, but it also marks an attempt to beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos. The latter announced last month that he will launch on his company Blue Origin's first passenger spaceflight on July 20.
Virgin Galactic stock jumped as much as 25% shortly after the open before slipping, last up 3% from its previous close of $43.19 a share.
The stock has more than doubled so far this year, but has seen wild swings – climbing above $60 a share in February before falling to near $15 in May and then rebounding.
This will be Virgin Galactic's fourth development spaceflight to date, as the passengers are testing the cabin of VSS Unity to prepare for when the company plans to begin flying tourists and researchers in early 2022.
Virgin Galactic said it will livestream the spaceflight for the first time, a feed that will be available on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
The company has about 600 reservations for tickets on future flights, sold at prices between $200,000 and $250,000 each. Branson announced in a video on Thursday that "when we return from space, I will announce something very exciting to give more people the chance to become an astronaut."
Founded in 2004, Virgin Galactic has spent years testing its spacecraft system, with multiple setbacks and a fatal crash in 2014 delaying the company's plans to begin flying paying customers.
VSS Unity launches from a jet-powered carrier aircraft, before accelerating to more than three times the speed of sound. The spacecraft then spends a few minutes in microgravity above 80 kilometers altitude — the boundary the U.S. officially recognizes as space — before slowly flipping around and gliding back to Earth to land on the Spaceport America runway.
After completing its third spaceflight test to date on May 22, Virgin Galactic leadership said there were three more spaceflight tests remaining. The first was scheduled to carry four passengers to test the cabin, the second was planned to carry Branson, and the third and final test would fly members of the Italian Air Force for professional astronaut training.
But Branson's announcement on Thursday represents a reorganization of that schedule, making his flight the next on deck. The rescheduling also came after Virgin Galactic received a key FAA license that cleared the company to fly passengers on future spaceflights.
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier emphasized in a CNBC interview last week that safety is "the first consideration." Colglazier noted the company would only make an announcement about its next flight "when we have all those boxes checked and all the steps in place."
Launching by July 11 requires Virgin Galactic to prepare its spacecraft faster than ever before, as it will mark 50 days since its May 22 flight. The fastest Virgin Galactic has turned around VSS Unity between spaceflights is 71 days.
Bezos' company has also spent years preparing to launch its first passengers. Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket has flown more than a dozen successful uncrewed spaceflights, with its most recent launching in April. Flying alongside Bezos will be his brother Mark, a yet unannounced winner of a $28 million public auction, and legendary aerospace pioneer Wally Funk.
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith emphasized that his company's spacecraft travels slightly higher than Virgin Galactic's. New Shepard passes a few kilometers above the internationally-recognized boundary of space, the Kármán Line, at 100 kilometers altitude (or about 328,000 feet).
"We wish him a great and safe flight, but they're not flying above the Kármán line and it's a very different experience," Smith said in a statement to CNBC.
Colglazier, speaking to CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" on Friday, responded to Smith.
"We also wish the Blue Origin people just the best – they do amazing things ... and the more people who go to space, the more we open up this door for everybody else," Colglazier. "We are going above the astronaut line; we've done this in the past. We've actually flown – the only commercial company that's flown – private astronauts, or private citizens, up above the astronaut line and come down with astronaut wings."
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02 July, 2021 - 11:23pm
Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic, will fly into space aboard his company's VSS Unity rocketplane on July 11 for an up-and-down test flight, beating Amazon-founder and rival Jeff Bezos into sub-orbital space by nine days.
The announcement from Virgin came just a few hours after Bezos announced thatwill be joining him, his brother Mark and the yet-to-be named winner of an online auction for blastoff July 20 aboard his company's New Shepard spacecraft.
Both Virgin Galactic and Bezos' Blue Origin are competing head-to-head in the emerging space tourism marketplace, both offering short rides just above the discernible atmosphere for a few minutes of weightlessness and spectacular views before returning to Earth.
Along with wealthy space tourists, both companies expect to fly researchers and experiments from government agencies and companies developing or testing space technology.
Neither company has said how much it plans to charge for a ride to space, but tickets are expected to cost between $250,000 and $500,000. Even so, some 600 enthusiasts have put down deposits with Virgin for flights once commercial operations begin in 2022. In after-hours trading the company's stock was up 25%.
Blue Origin has carried out 15 unpiloted test flights of its New Shepard rocket and capsule and announced on May 5 that its first flight with passengers on board would take off on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
One month later, on June 7, Bezos announced that he and his brother would be aboard along with the as-yet-unidentified winner of the online auction, whose $28 million bid won a seat on the New Shepard capsule. Funk will round out the four-person crew.
It appeared Bezos was on track to win the billionaire race to space, but the Federal Aviation Administration recently gave Virgin permission to carry passengers on its next test flight, fueling speculation Branson would be aboard to beat Bezos to the punch.
"I truly believe that space belongs to all of us," Branson said in a statement Thursday. "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."
He said he was "honored to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin."
Joining him will be pilots Dave MacKay and Michael Masucci, along with Virgin's chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, operations engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, Virgin's vice president for government affairs and research operations.
Mackay flew two earlier sub-orbital test flights while Masucci and Moses each have one previous flight to their credits.
The upcoming flight will be Virgin's fourth piloted spaceflight, all of them test missions, and the 22nd flight of VSS Unity overall.
While Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin both plan to offer rides to sub-orbital space, the companies chose very different approaches to the challenge of safely launching passengers to altitudes above 50 miles, the somewhat arbitrary "boundary" of space.
Bezos' Blue Origin chose a more traditional approach, designing a fully automated single-stage, reusable rocket and capsule while Virgin Galactic built on the success of legendary aircraft design Burt Rutan's concept for a winged spaceplane.
A smaller two-man version of the spacecraft won the $10 million Ansari X-prize in 2004, completing two trips to space and back within two weeks. Branson purchased rights to the design and scaled it up to carry a crew of six.
Unlike the New Shepard capsule, which launches from Earth and is then released from it booster for a short sojourn in space, Virgin Galactic's spaceplane is carried aloft by a twin-fuselage carrier jet and then released above 40,000 feet for a quick rocket-powered ascent. The craft then glides back to Earth for a runway landing.
Both spacecraft offer the same brief period of weightlessness and while Virgin's passengers will enjoy a longer flight overall than the New Shepard's 10-minute missions, Blue Origin's capsule offers the biggest windows ever built into a spacecraft, along with a "full envelope" abort system to safely propel the craft away from a malfunctioning booster.
An earlier Virgin spaceplane, the VSS Enterprise, suffered a catastrophic failure during a test flight in 2014 that killed one of the two pilots on board. The mishap was blamed on pilot error, and changes were made to prevent any chance of a recurrence.
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."
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02 July, 2021 - 11:23pm