In a statement announcing the mission, the company said Branson would be joined in the cabin by three Virgin Galactic employees who would evaluate the “cabin environment, seat comfort, the weightless experience, and the views of Earth that the spaceship delivers — all to ensure every moment of the astronaut’s journey maximizes the wonder and awe created by space travel.”
Among those employees is Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, who flew to space on the company’s second spaceflight mission. Virgin Galactic’s plane, known as SpaceShipTwo Unity, has reached space on three occasions, and this would be the first time it will have flown a crew of four.
In an interview, Branson said he was “incredibly excited” and that moving up his flight was “honestly not” intended to best Bezos.
“I completely understand why the press would write that,” he said. “It’s just an incredible, wonderful coincidence that we’re going up in the same month.”
Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, recently said he would fly on July 20, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. And on Thursday his space company, Blue Origin, announced he would be joined by Wally Funk, a member of the “Mercury 13,” a group of women privately tested and trained by a team of aviation medical experts for NASA’s astronaut program at the height of the space race.
Both Branson’s and Bezos’s flights will travel on suborbital trajectories that will just scratch the edge of space and give passengers a few minutes of weightlessness.
Wishing Branson well, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith nevertheless sounded a note of one-upmanship in his reaction to Branson’s plans: “They’re not flying above the Kármán line, and it’s a very different experience.”
The reference is to the different distances the two spacecraft are designed to travel. Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule flies to an altitude of 100 kilometers or 62 miles, the so-called Kármán line, which some experts say is where space begins. Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane flies beyond 50 miles, above which the Federal Aviation Administration defines as space.
Virgin Galactic recently received approval from the FAA that allows it to fly commercial passengers, paving the way for Branson to join the crew. In May, the company flew another test flight that went so well that the company felt it was safe to allow Branson to fly as part of the crew.
“I’ve been itching to go, and they said they wanted somebody to properly test the astronaut experience,” he said in the interview. “And I was damned if I was going to let anyone take that seat.”
Virgin Galactic, which Branson founded in 2004, has some 600 people signed up for flights — one of them Funk — and is expected to reopen sales around the time of Branson’s flight. The company had charged $250,000, but that price will increase. The company has not said what it would charge, but analysts have said it could be as much as $500,000.
Blue Origin has not announced ticket prices either. But it recently auctioned off a seat for $28 million for its first spaceflight mission. The company has yet not announced who the winner is.
Virgin Galactic flies out of Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unlike a traditional rocket, Virgin’s spacecraft is carried aloft to some 45,000 feet by a mother plane. The spacecraft is then dropped, and the pilots ignite its engines and fly the craft almost straight up.
In addition to Branson and Moses, Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research operations, and Colin Bennett, the company’s lead operations engineer, would join the flight.
Virgin Galactic’s CEO, Michael Colglazier, said in an interview that the crew “are going to open the door for the rest of us to find a way to access space in the future.”
He said the company did a thorough safety review and determined that the previous test flight met all its objectives, meaning the company could move Branson up to its next test flight instead of the one to follow.
“It really gave us a choice as to whether Richard would prefer to fly on the first or the second,” Colglazier said. “And guess which one he chose?”
Branson said that after waiting to go to space for 17 years, he was most looking forward to seeing Earth from a distance, and allowing his customers, some of whom have been waiting for years, to go as well.
“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” Branson said in a statement. “After 17 years of research, engineering and innovation, the new commercial space industry is poised to open the universe to humankind and change the world for good. It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality.”