Virgin Galactic's launching Richard Branson to space: Why you should care

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CNET 10 July, 2021 - 05:00pm 25 views

When is Richard Branson flying to space?

On July 11, Virgin Galactic will make a giant leap toward commercial suborbital spaceflight. The company will launch its first fully crewed flight of its SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity with a special passenger on board: the company's billionaire founder Richard Branson. Space.comVirgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity 22 launch with Richard Branson: Here's when to watch and what to know.

How does Virgin Galactic launch?

Instead of launching from the ground, the VSS Unity is carried aloft by a twin-fuselage carrier jet, the "mothership" VMS Eve, and then released at around 45,000 feet for a rocket-powered climb to the lower reaches of space. CBS NewsHow to watch Richard Branson launch to space aboard Virgin Galactic rocket plane

Where does Virgin Galactic launch from?

The launch will take place from New Mexico's Spaceport America, and live coverage will commence at 9 a.m. KGO-TVVirgin Galactic launch live stream: Everything to know about Richard Branson's space flight, how to watch

What time is Virgin Galactic launch today?

Virgin Galactic launch: Everything to know about Richard Branson's spaceflight, how to watch. ABC will carry live coverage of Virgin Galactic's launch at 9 a.m. ET, weather permitting. Watch here, wherever you stream. WABC-TVVirgin Galactic launch live stream: Everything to know about Richard Branson's space flight today, how to watch

One crew member, Virgin's chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, will be making the trip for the second time. But the star of the show will be the 70-year-old Branson, who has invested over 16 years and more than $1 billion to finally make the short trip to the edge of space, experience weightlessness and gaze upon Earth as only a privileged few hundred other humans have.

But much more is at stake Sunday than just the high-flying dreams of one wealthy media and travel magnate.

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More than a million New Mexico taxpayers, including me, have invested nearly a quarter billion dollars to build Virgin Galactic's home at Spaceport America in the hopes its anchor tenant will create a new industry in the state.

"We couldn't be more excited to finally share this groundbreaking moment with the world," Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. "The dawn of space tourism is happening right here."

There are also bragging rights to consider, as Branson has scheduled his flight to take place nine days before fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos rides one of his Blue Origin rockets to space for the first time on July 20. Branson has insisted there is no race between himself and Bezos, but the timing is difficult to discount.

Investors will be closely monitoring the test program Branson is participating in Sunday. Virgin Galactic is a publicly traded company worth over $11 billion as of July 6. And of course there are the company's 700 paying customers, who have waited patiently in line, ready to pay over $200,000 each for the ride.

Beyond that, there's a broader vision of easy access to space (or perhaps a planetary escape hatch, depending on your disposition) for humanity. Our species has been sending handfuls of humans to space  for decades, but the rate of growth of the larger program of human spaceflight has been more or less stagnant for a generation or two now. And the possibility of regular civilians making it to space has remained at virtually zero, save for a few who managed to secure a seat by possessing the highest levels of either political or financial privilege.

Now, with Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and also Elon Musk's SpaceX, we are finally on the precipice of moving from quirky one-off space tourists to regular commercial trips to microgravity, orbit and maybe even the moon, Mars and beyond, with some hyperfast point-to-point trips around the globe in between.

"I truly believe that space belongs to all of us," Branson says. "Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry, which is set to open space to humankind."

Sunday's flight may still be just one rich guy and his employees taking a very high-altitude joyride that will probably be over in under 90 minutes. But it also represents more than that, and it's been a very long road to reach this point.

One of the longest and most arduous roads in history was the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro that linked Mexico City with Santa Fe and other points for nearly three centuries, between 1598 and the late 19th century. The most feared stretch of the over 1,500-mile (2,414-kilometer) journey was the Jornada del Muerto, or Dead Man's Route, north of Las Cruces. This flat, dry and desolate basin is 100 miles long and has been home to basically nothing forever, except now it hosts Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic's commercial spaceflight operations.

More specifically, you'll find New Mexico's publicly funded commercial spaceport near a spot that was once called Aleman. The name (as well as the name of the Jornada del Muerto) comes from a German fugitive who tried crossing the desert in the dry season in 1670. His remains where found, after being picked over and scattered by vultures, not far from the spot where Branson and crew will take off Sunday.

Despite the region's inability to produce much more than suffering over its history, hope somehow still springs from this dusty land. Just as generations traversed it for centuries seeking opportunity and fortune, Virgin Galactic has traveled its own tortured path, all the while keeping the faith that this empty yet quietly beautiful desert valley could be its gateway to a brilliant future.

Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004, and a little over a year later a deal was struck with New Mexico to base the company's commercial flights at the new spaceport, then expected to be completed by 2010. Everything seemed to be off and running. At one point, Branson predicted that Virgin could launch as many as 50,000 passengers to the edge of space in its first decade of operations, by about 2020.

Virgin Galactic aims to eventually launch thousands of passengers per year from Spaceport America.

The Spaceport officially opened in October 2011, but development of Virgin Galactic's unique horizontal launch system was slow-going. Unlike SpaceX or Blue Origin, which put passenger capsules atop vertically launched rockets, Virgin uses a custom carrier aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo that totes SpaceShipTwo, which is essentially a rocket-powered spaceplane, to an elevation where it is released to then ignite and blast its way toward space.

The company was still working to get the required speed and altitude out of SpaceShipTwo when a fatal mishap occurred during a test flight in California in 2014. SpaceShipTwo Enterprise broke apart shortly after ignition of its engine, leaving one co-pilot dead and another seriously injured. More delays and an investigation ensued, but Virgin Galactic was able to resume its test flights with a new SpaceShipTwo, the VSS Unity, by December 2016.

The last five years for Virgin Galactic have been much happier than the previous half decade, even with last year essentially lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. VSS Unity has outperformed its predecessor, carrying Moses as the first person in the passenger cabin in 2019. The company unveiled its astronaut lounge at Spaceport America later that year and also started trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

A series of unveilings -- of its flight suit, passenger cabin and the next-generation SpaceShip III joining the fleet -- have all led up to this Sunday. Branson and crew will take off from the center of the Dead Man's Route, using a forgotten section of dry earth to go places that centuries of miserable visitors to the same valley could scarcely dream of.

The details of Sunday's flight remain about as scarce as a watering hole between Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences, but we know that liftoff of WhiteKnightTwo is expected about 7 a.m. local time (6 a.m. PT). Based on previous test flights, it will be at least 30 minutes before the carrier craft reaches the altitude where VSS Unity detaches and ignites its rocket engine.

After blasting to an altitude of about 56 miles (90 kilometers) and floating around in microgravity for a bit, the spacecraft will return for a landing at Spaceport America, probably no more than 90 minutes after takeoff.

Virgin Galactic will have a livestream of the mission, dubbed Unity 22, and you can watch it right here. I will also be on the ground at Spaceport America all day Sunday, so you can also get updates and some behind-the-scenes details by following me on Twitter and Instagram @EricCMack.

Follow CNET's 2021 Space Calendar to stay up to date with all the latest space news this year. You can even add it to your own Google Calendar. 

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Dare to Dream: Sirisha Bandla Set to Become Fourth Indian-Origin to Fly Into Space on July 11 | The Weather Channel - Articles from The Weather Channel | weather.com

The Weather Channel 10 July, 2021 - 06:15pm

With the launch of the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998 and its continuous inhabitancy since 2000, there hasn’t been a single day in the last two decades when every individual of our species was on Earth at the same time. The glorious era of flying to the cosmos sparked significant interest in India after Indian astronaut Rakesh Sharma flew aboard Soyuz T-11 on April 3, 1984.

Later, Kalpana Chawala and Sunita Williams embarked on brave space adventures as NASA astronauts. For space enthusiasts in India, all these names are the role models—their posters decked in astronaut suits stuck on the wall of our rooms. Millennials grew up looking up to them with much awe and admiration!

And now, a dream for one such space enthusiast is set to turn into a reality. Sirisha Bandla, originally from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, is set to make her starry dream come true tomorrow (Sunday, July 11) with a private mission by Virgin Galactic alongside its founder, billionaire Richard Branson.

The 34-year-old Sirisha Bandla grew up in Houston, Texas, after she migrated with her parents at a very young age of four. Wonders of the skies inspired Sirisha from a very young age. She gradually developed her interest in understanding the universe along with learning to fly an aircraft. Grandfather of Sirisha, Bandla Ragaiah, recalls her as a fearless and active child with decisive thoughts. He currently lives in Guntur and is over cloud nine after getting the news of her journey into space.

The Indian Express quoted him as saying, “We don’t know how she got interested in aircraft, stars and skies. It has been in her since childhood. Whatever she has achieved today is on her own accord, and her parents gave her full freedom to pursue her dream. She has proved her excellence and rose to the occasion.”

Sirisha always wanted to join NASA, but reportedly her eyesight issues created hurdles in pursuing this dream. But that never stopped her from continuing a career in this field. She began to look for opportunities in the area of commercial space flight to persist on this path. To give a brief insight into her journey and inspire others to pursue the same, Sirisha has compiled all this in a Youtube video titled ‘Lessons from Bandla Sirisha’ on how to get into the Space industry.

The young astronaut-to-be also advocates for the better representation of women and people of colour in the commercial spaceflight industry.

Adding to the list of Indian origin astronauts—Rakesh Sharma, Kalpana Chawala, and Sunita Williams—Sirisha will be the fourth Indian origin person to fly into space. Before her, Raja Chari, a NASA astronaut, was set to claim this honour with the launch of the NASA SpaceX Crew-3 Mission to the ISS scheduled to launch in October 2021.

With the mission Unity22 of Richard Branson’s space flight company Virgin Galactic, Sirisha will also be the second Indian-born woman—after Kalpana Chawla—to travel to space. The six-member team, including Sirisha and Richard Branson, is part of the mission that marks the 22nd test flight of the spacecraft VSS Unity and the company's fourth crewed mission beyond Earth's atmosphere.

The mission is set to open new avenues of space travel for everyone (who can afford it!) on Earth in the near future. For this much-anticipated mission, Sirisha will play the role of a researcher. The official website highlights: “Bandla will be evaluating the human-tended research experience, using an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes that will be activated at various points in the flight profile.”

In this mission, the suborbital rocket-powered spaceplane will take aboard six travellers for the duration of 60 to 75 minutes. The flight will blast off from the Virgin Galactic's Spaceport America in New Mexico and land back at the same destination.

In 2015, Sirisha started working at Virgin Galactic and is currently the vice president of government affairs in this company. Bandla holds two degrees, one in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University, another in Master of Business Administration from Georgetown University. Before joining Virgin Galactic, she worked as an aerospace engineer in Texas and also held the position of Associate Director in the space policy sector of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF).

Virgin Galactic will be live streaming the entire spaceflight mission on Sunday, July 11, on its official social media platforms. The coverage will commence at 6 pm (IST).

Richard Branson Virgin Galactic

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