By Steve Gorman
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. (Reuters) -British billionaire Richard Branson prepared on Sunday to climb into his Virgin Galactic passenger rocket plane and soar more than 50 miles (80 km) above the New Mexico desert in the vehicle’s first fully crewed test flight to the edge of space.
Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees strapping in for the ride, has touted the flight as a precursor to a new era of space tourism, with the company he founded poised to begin commercial operations next year.
Sunday’s launch of the VSS Unity rocket plane will mark the company’s 22nd test flight of its SpaceShipTwo system, and its fourth crewed mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere. It’s also the first to carry a full complement of space travelers – two pilots and four “mission specialists,” Branson among them.
The planned takeoff from New Mexico’s state-owned Spaceport of America, located near the New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences, was pushed back by 90 minutes due to overnight thunderstorms that kept Virgin Galactic from rolling out its rocket plane on time, the company said.
The gleaming white spaceplane was now due to be borne aloft at around 10:30 a.m. (1430 GMT) attached to the underside of a specially designed twin-fuselage carrier jet VMS Eve – named for Branson’s late mother.
Separating from the mothership at an altitude of 50,000 feet, Unity’s rocket engine will ignite to send the spaceplane streaking straight upward to the blackness of space some 55 miles high, where the crew will experience about 4 minutes of microgravity.
With the engine shut down near the peak of its climb, the craft will then be shifted into re-entry mode before gliding back to a runway landing at the spaceport. The entire flight, from takeoff to touchdown, should take about 90 minutes.
Assuming the mission goes well, Virgin has plans for two further test flights of the spaceplane in the months ahead before beginning regular commercial operation in 2022.
The Swiss-based investment bank UBS has estimated the potential value of the space tourism market reaching $3 billion annually by 2030.
Proving rocket travel safe for the general public is key, given the inherent dangers of spaceflight.
An earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.
Branson’s participation in Sunday’s flight, announced just over a week ago, is in keeping with his persona as the daredevil executive whose Virgin brands – from airlines to music companies – have long been associated with ocean-crossing exploits in sailboats and hot-air balloons.
Bezos has been planning to fly aboard his own suborbital rocketship, the New Shepard, later this month.
Branson, a week away from his 71st birthday, has insisted he and Bezos are friendly rivals and not engaged in a personal contest to beat one another into space.
Bezos posted a message on Instagram on Saturday wishing Branson and his team good luck and “a successful and safe flight,” but nonetheless there has been some public rancor between the two.
Blue Origin has disparaged Virgin Galactic as falling short of a true spaceflight experience, saying that unlike Unity, Bezos’s New Shepard tops the 62-mile-high-mark (100 km), called the Krmn line, set by an international aeronautics body as defining the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.
However, U.S. space agency NASA and the U.S. Air Force both define an astronaut as anyone who has flown higher than 50 miles (80 km).
A third player in the space race, billionaire proprietor Elon Musk’s SpaceX, plans to send its first all-civilian crew (without Musk) into orbit in September, after having already launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA.
Musk said on Twitter that he would be at the launch to cheer Branson on.
Branson’s official role in Sunday’s test flight is to “evaluate the private astronaut experience,” according to Virgin’s press materials.
The spaceplane’s two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, will control the ignition and shutoff of the ship’s rocket engine, activation of the vehicle’s “feathered” tail maneuver for re-entry and steer the craft back to its runway.
The three other mission specialists are Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Virgin Galactic’s lead operations engineer Colin Bennett; and Sirisha Bandla, a research operations and government affairs vice president.
(Reporting by Steve GormanEditing by Daniel Wallis and Frances Kerry)