Richard Branson becomes astronaut aboard his own space ship

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has launched into space aboard a spacecraft developed by his own company, Virgin Galactic.

The Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. space plane carrying company founder Richard Branson and five employees detached as planned from a carrier aircraft to began its rocket ride.

The VSS Unity ignited its rocket motor after separating from the carrier aircraft at approximately 45,000 feet (13,700 meters). The crew plans to ascend to around 290,000 feet, or 55 miles (89 kilometres) above Earth, before gliding back to a New Mexico runway. The trip began around 8:40 a.m. local time and is expected to last more than an hour.

The suborbital journey kicks off a landmark month for the future of space tourism, with Branson looking to demonstrate Virgin Galactic’s capabilities nine days before Inc. founder Jeff Bezos plans to fly on a rocket made by Blue Origin, his space venture. Both companies envision businesses catering to wealthy tourists willing to pay top dollar for a short period of weightlessness and an unforgettable view of the Earth and heavens.

Branson, 70, and his fellow crewmembers are expected to experience about four minutes of weightlessness. After reaching its highest altitude, the Unity is designed to pivot in space and glide back to the Spaceport America complex near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

The mission, which is expected to take more than an hour, is the spacecraft’s 22nd test flight and first with a large crew. Virgin Galactic has dubbed the flight “Unity 22,” and it’s the first of two tests the company is planning this summer before an astronaut-training mission with Italian Air Force personnel later this year.

Virgin Galactic Unity 22 crew (from left to right): Dave “Mac” Mackay, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, Sir Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla, Michael “Sooch” Masucci

Branson is evaluating the customer experience during the flight and in the various preparatory events Virgin Galactic plans around its launches. Also on board:

  • Dave “Mac” Mackay, chief pilot. He is among Virgin Galactic’s earliest hires. He is a former U.K. Royal Air Force test pilot and Boeing 747 aviator at Branson-backed Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. Mackay, who grew up in a rural village in northern Scotland, became the first Scotsman to fly to space.
  • Michael “Sooch” Masucci, pilot. He is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel with more than 10,000 hours experience in the U-2 and F-16 jets, along with dozens of other aircraft types. He joined Virgin in 2013 and first flew to space in 2019.
  • Sirisha Bandla, Virgin’s vice president of government affairs. She will test the “researcher experience” during the flight with a plant experiment from the University of Florida. Born in Guntur, in the Andhra Pradesh province of southern India, she will become the second Indian-American woman to travel in space.
  • Colin Bennett, a Virgin Galactic engineer. He will evaluate cabin procedures during the test flight. Bennett has worked for Virgin Galactic as an operations engineer for six years in California, according to his LinkedIn page. Previously, he was an engineer at Virgin Atlantic.
  • Beth Moses, Virgin’s chief astronaut instructor. She is making her second space flight after a trip in February 2019. The flight made Moses the 571st person to travel to space, according to Virgin Galactic. She will be the test director Sunday and the cabin lead. Moses worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for 24 years before joining the company. Her husband, Mike Moses, is Virgin Galactic’s president of space missions and safety.
Virgin Galactic Eve mothership and Unity spacecraft

Virgin last flew the two-craft system on May 22. The company said the Unity performed well after more than two months of work to minimize electromagnetic interference that had delayed a planned February 2021 test. In a flight in December 2020, the rocket motor failed to ignite and the spacecraft glided back to the spaceport.

The test in May was the company’s first successful powered flight since February 2019. Following the test that took place more than two years ago, flight engineers discovered hull damage on the spacecraft from air pressure that had built up after ventilating holes were accidentally covered, according to “Test Gods,” a book published this year by New Yorker writer Nicholas Schmidle.

The company plans to begin working down its backlog of around 600 confirmed customers in early 2022. Virgin Galactic has said it will resume ticket sales after the summer’s test flights, with executives signalling that fares will be higher than the prior price of $250,000 a seat.

Virgin Galactic’s shares have doubled this year through Friday, valuing the startup at almost $12 billion.

Live stream of the Virgin Galactic Unit 22 launch

Reporting with Bloomberg.

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Richard Branson becomes astronaut aboard his own space ship