Virgin Galactic’s big day is finally here. On Sunday (July 11), the space tourism company will launch its first full-crew mission, codenamed “Unity 22,” with six passengers, including the company’s owner Richard Branson, on board to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere.
Branson, 70, and his crew members will depart from Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo vehicle. A livestream of the event will start at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) on Virgin’s website, according to the company’s Twitter feed.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for 17 years…Every bit about it is a pinch-me moment,” Branson said in an interview with Reuters Tuesday from Spaceport America.
The mission will last 90 minutes in total. The VSS Unity will take off beneath the wings of a carrier aircraft called VMS Eve and soar to at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15 kilometers). After that, Eve will drop Unity mid-air; in the meantime the spaceplane will fire up its own engine and head toward suborbital space. At peak altitude, Branson and his crew mates will experience several minutes of weightlessness before beginning a descent back to Earth. Both Eve and Unity will land back at Spaceport America.
Branson’s crew include pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett, and head of government affairs and research operations Sirisha Bandla.
On July 20, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will blast off for a similar flight in a Blue Origin New Shepard rocket. The New Shepard will fly the world’s richest man to an altitude of about 100 kilometers. That’s about 20 percent higher than what Virgin Galactic is aiming for. But unlike VSS Unity, Blue Origin’s New Shepard has never been tested with passengers on board.