Watch live: Virgin Galactic launches billionaire Sir Richard Branson into space

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Sky News 11 July, 2021 - 09:42am 29 views

Where is Virgin Galactic launching from?

Virgin Galactic's flights launch from Spaceport America, along a desolate stretch of desert in New Mexico. The company's SpaceShipTwo Unity craft is designed to take off on a conventional runway while attached to the underbelly of a carrier ship known as WhiteKnightTwo. NBC NewsRichard Branson, Virgin Galactic prepare for launch

Where is Richard Branson launching from?

Branson, two company pilots and three Virgin Galactic crewmates are launching from Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, on what's expected to be at least an hour-long flight, reaching altitudes a little over 50 miles above the Earth. CBS NewsWatch Live: Richard Branson launching to space aboard Virgin Galactic rocket plane

What time does Richard Branson take off for space?

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M.— Richard Branson set off for the edge of space Sunday in a flight aimed at spurring a new, multibillion-dollar space-tourism industry. A Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. airplane took off from the Spaceport America launch facility at 10:40 a.m. The Wall Street JournalRichard Branson Begins Virgin Galactic Space Trip

How long is Virgin Galactic flight?

How long will the space plane be up there? The trip will last in total about two and a half hours. However, Branson and his team will only be weightless in space for four to five minutes before the craft tilts and returns to Earth. The GuardianVirgin Galactic flight to the edge of space: your questions answered

Read full article at Sky News

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It has been a very long wait for Mr. Branson, the irreverent, 70-year-old British billionaire who leads a galaxy of Virgin companies. In 2004, he founded Virgin Galactic to provide adventurous tourists with rides on rocket-powered planes to the edge of space and back.

At the time, he thought commercial service would begin in two to three years. Instead, close to 17 years have passed. Virgin Galactic says it still has three more test flights to conduct, including the one on Sunday, before it can be ready for paying passengers.

For this flight, Mr. Branson will be a member of the crew. His task is to evaluate the cabin experience for future customers.

After cars drove Mr. Branson and his crewmates to the plane, the flighttook off on Sunday morning around 10:40 a.m. from Spaceport America in New Mexico, about 180 miles south of Albuquerque. Virgin is broadcasting coverage of the flight, or you can watch it in the video player embedded above.

The launch was pushed back about 90 minutes from its original start time because weather conditions overnight at the spaceport resulted in a delay of the spacecraft leaving its hangar. But at the time of liftoff, weather was favorable for the flight.

Stephen Colbert introduced the livestream. The singer Khalid is scheduled to perform a new song after the crew lands. And Mr. Branson tweeted a picture in the morning with Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, who is in New Mexico to watch the flight.

To get off the ground, Unity is carried by a larger plane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet. There, Unity will be released, and the rocket plane’s motor will ignite. The acceleration will make people on board feel a force up to 3.5 times their normal weight on the way to an altitude of more than 50 miles.

At the top of the arc, those on board will be able to see the blackness of space as well as the curve of Earth from the plane’s windows. They will also be able get out of their seats and experience about four minutes of apparent weightlessness. Fifty miles up, Earth’s downward gravitational pull is essentially just as strong as it is on the ground; rather, the passengers will be falling at the same pace as the plane around them.

The two tail booms at the back of the space plane rotate up to a “feathered” configuration that creates more drag and stability, allowing the plane to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere more gently. This configuration makes SpaceShipTwo more like a badminton shuttlecock, which always falls with the pointy side oriented down, than a plane.

Still, the forces felt by the passengers on the way down will be greater than on the way up, reaching six times the force of gravity.

Once the plane is back in the atmosphere, the tail booms rotate back down, and the plane will glide to a landing. The whole flight may take less than two hours.

In addition to Mr. Branson, three Virgin Galactic employees will evaluate how the experience will be for future paying customers. They are Beth Moses, the chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.

On Sunday’s flight, Ms. Bandla will conduct an experiment from the University of Florida that looks at how plants react to the changing conditions — particularly the swings in gravity — during the flight, part of research that could aid growing food on future long-duration space missions.

The rationale is that emerging space companies like Virgin Galactic need a “learning period” to try out designs and procedures and that too much regulation too soon would stifle innovation that would lead to better, more efficient designs.

Future passengers will have to sign forms acknowledging “informed consent” to the risks, similar to what you sign if you go skydiving or bungee jumping.

What the F.A.A. does regulate is ensuring safety for people not on the plane — that is, if anything does go wrong, that the risk to the “uninvolved public” on ground is minuscule.

The Virgin Galactic design already has an imperfect safety record. The company’s first space plane, the V.S.S. Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014 when the co-pilot moved a lever too early during the flight, allowing the tail booms to rotate when they should have remained rigid. The Enterprise broke apart, and the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed. The pilot, Peter Siebold, survived after parachuting out of the plane.

The controls were redesigned so that the tail booms cannot be unlocked prematurely.

In 2019, Virgin Galactic came close to another catastrophe when a new metal thermal protection film was improperly installed, covering up holes that allow air trapped inside a horizontal stabilizer — the small horizontal wing on the tail of a plane — to flow out as the craft rises into the rarefied layers of the atmosphere. Instead, the pressure of the trapped air ruptured a seal along one of the stabilizers.

The mishap was revealed earlier this year in the book “Test Gods” by Nicholas Schmidle, a staff writer at The New Yorker. The book quotes Todd Ericson, then the vice president for safety and testing at Virgin Galactic, saying, “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and kill three people.”

What became his Virgin business empire began with a small record shop in central London in the 1970s before Mr. Branson parlayed it into Virgin Records, the home of acts like the Sex Pistols, Peter Gabriel and more. In 1984, he co-founded what became Virgin Atlantic to challenge British Airways in the field of long-haul passenger air travel. Other Virgin-branded airlines followed.

The Virgin Group branched out into other businesses as well, including a mobile-phone carrier, a passenger railroad and a line of hotels. Not all have performed flawlessly: Both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia filed for insolvency during the pandemic last year, while few today remember his ventures into soft drinks, cosmetics or lingerie.

Virgin Galactic was announced to much fanfare in 2004 with the promise of creating a space tourism company with style. Virgin Orbit, a spinoff of that company that launches small satellites from a jumbo jet, came 13 years later. Virgin Orbit, now separate from Virgin Galactic, has carried payloads to orbit twice this year.

The space tourism company is of a piece with Mr. Branson’s penchant for highflying pursuits like skydiving and hot-air ballooning. And unlike many of the Virgin Group’s businesses that are actually minority investments or simply licensees, Virgin Galactic has been a major focus of Mr. Branson’s. He raised $1 billion for the space companies from Saudi Arabia, only to call off the deal in 2018 after the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And in a regulatory filing, the company said it had benefited from his “personal network to generate new inquiries and reservation sales, as well as referrals from existing reservation holders.”

“We’ve spent 14 years working on our space program,” Mr. Branson said in a Bloomberg Television interview in 2018. “And it’s been tough, and space is tough — it’s rocket science.” He added that he had hoped to travel on one of Virgin Galactic’s flights by the end of that year.

Virgin Galactic joined the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 after merging with a publicly traded investment fund, giving it a potent source of new funds to compete with deep-pocket competitors — and publicity, with Mr. Branson marking its trading debut at the exchange in one of the company’s flight suits.

But while Virgin Galactic has sought to keep pace with the likes of Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin, Mr. Branson has downplayed any rivalry between the two. “I know nobody will believe me when I say it, but honestly, there isn’t,” he told The Today Show earlier this week.

During earlier test flights, the Virgin Galactic plane carried scientific experiments. One from University of Florida scientists, for example, tested imaging technologies that capture the reaction of plants — which genes are turned on and off — to the stresses of spaceflight.

In the future, scientists will be able to accompany their experiments. On this flight, Ms. Bandla of Virgin Galactic will perform an experiment that requires handling several tubes during the trip.

The Italian Air Force has purchased seats on future flights for scientific research, as has the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. It will be much easier, faster and cheaper to fly experiments on suborbital flights than to get them to the International Space Station.

Internationally, however, the altitude that marks the start of space is usually set at 100 kilometers, or just over 62 miles, what is known as the Karman line.

SpaceShipTwo was originally intended to rise above the 62-mile altitude, but difficulties during the development of the motor led to a less powerful but more reliable design that cannot propel the spacecraft that high.

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