Richard Branson hopes to finally make the trip to space he’s been working toward for years, on July 11 aboard hisUnity.
“After more than 16 years of research, engineering, and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry,” Branson said in a statement Thursday.
The mission, dubbed Unity 22, is the 22nd flight test for the rocket-powered spaceplane VSS Unity, the fourth crewed Virgin spaceflight, and company founder Branson’s first trip beyond Earth.
Virgin Galactic has said it plans to perform three more test flights before welcoming its paying customers aboard for a microgravity joyride with an epic view. Unity 22 will be the first of those flights, with Branson joining a crew of five other Virgin Galactic employees for the trip.
Ostensibly, the mission will “focus on cabin and customer experience objectives,” according to the company. But the timing seems almost designed to ratchet up the “battle of the billionaires” rhetoric in the media, as Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX all aim to get their commercial space tourism offerings off the ground this year.
The news comes on the same day fellow billionaire magnate rocket enthusiastthat aviation pioneer Wally Funk, a member of the “Mercury 13” group of women who passed the same tests as early NASA astronauts, will join him on his first trip to space, slated for July 20.
Notaby, Branson will beat Bezos to space by nine days, if all goes to plan. Branson, the founder of Virgin Records, Virgin Airlines and a number of other companies also offered a tease in the company’s promotional video for the flight: “When I return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people a chance to become astronauts.”
No word just yet on what that might mean. But for the first time, Virgin Galactic will allow the rest of use to follow along via a livestream of the mission. We’ll be sure to carry it here, and I’m already looking into getting as close as I can for liftoff from Spaceport America here in New Mexico.
The stream is expected to start at 6 a.m. PT on July 11. Check back here and also follow me on Twitter @EricCMack for more incremental updates.
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