Why Richard Branson is going to space today

Astronaut and test-customer Richard Branson.
Astronaut and test-customer Richard Branson.
Image: Virgin Galactic livestream
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Billionaire Richard Branson has always dreamed of going to space. “I was a kid once, standing with my dad and my sister, looking up at the moon, being told that Buzz and Neil were standing on it,” Branson told NPR’s Morning Edition this week, referring to the Apollo 11 astronauts. “And I just thought, I’ve got to go to space one day.”

Today (July 11), he is finally set to do just that: He’ll be taking a trip to the edge of space.

For Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 spaceflight, Branson will join a crew of five other people for his first journey to suborbital space onboard the VSS Unity spaceship. It will be the ship’s first fully crewed flight yet and its fourth journey to space.

Virgin began live-streaming the event from its Spaceport America launchpad in New Mexico at 10:30 am ET. At time of writing the flight had just taken off, though the launch time was delayed by 90 minutes because of overnight weather conditions that delayed the spacecraft from leaving its hangar, according to the New York Times.

But this flight is about more than fulfilling a lifelong dream. Branson is evaluating the experience for future customers willing to shell out $250,000 for a ticket into the great beyond. (NPR reports that 700 people are already on the waitlist.)

In that mission, he will be joined by three other Virgin Galactic employees: Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations, who will be testing the research experience; Beth Moses, the chief astronaut instructor who has made this trip once already; and Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer. The two pilots are Virgin Galactic veterans David Mackay and Michael Masucci.

A landmark in commercial space travel history

Last month, Virgin Galactic received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to bring paying customers into space. Branson, known for differentiating his customer experience, is already demonstrating his knack for marketing and event packaging, at least for those watching his venture. The company has hired Stephen Colbert to host the live-streamed event and singer Khalid to perform a new song upon the crew’s return.

Although the VSS Unity has already completed three test missions without any serious incidents, traveling to space is a daring move for the 70-year-old, who has proven his willingness to cheat death on multiple occasions.

Environmentalists, however, are less impressed by his quest and boldness, or that of Jeff Bezos, fellow space enthusiast billionaire who will also make his extraterrestrial debut later this month. “Opening up space to a frenzy of private actors could, [environmentalists] agree, produce measurable benefits back on planet Earth—making crucial scientific research, environmental monitoring, and everyday communication cheaper,” the New Republic writes, “But the critics are quick to note as well that the history of privatization is spotty at best, with plenty of civically brutal knock-on effects: concentrations of monopolistic power, enfeebled democratic control, and widespread environmental degradation.”

What to expect for today’s flight

Today, tune in to see WhiteKnightTwo, a specially-built airplane, carry the VSS Unity to about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) before the spaceship will break away and power itself into suborbital space.

The crew will experience about four minutes of weightlessness before the ship will land on its own steam again. Then it’s time to cue the music.