Sir Richard Branson’s Unity 22 space tourism test flight has been delayed by weather conditions at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.
Billionaire British celebrity-businessman Branson is now set to take off on-board Unity 22’s four minute space flight on Sunday at 14.30 GMT – 15 months after asking the UK government for a £500 million bail out for his Virgin airline.
Estimates put the cost of the Unity flight at over £430 million – equivalent to £108m per minute of suborbital zero gravity – with backers, reported to include Brad Pitt, Justin Bieber and Tom Hanks, said to have paid $250,000 (£180,000) for a ticket to become “future astronauts”.
Branson hopes the price can come down as his Virgin Galactic fleet of spaceships expands “and operations become more streamlined”.
The edge of space
The 70-year-old and five crew members take off from Virgin’s Spaceport America base and will be flown to “the edge of space” at 50,000ft/15km by VMS Eve, a carrier aircraft.
Eve, named after Branson’s mother, will release SpaceshipTwo VSS Unity – on its 22nd mission – to “soar by rocket power in an almost vertical climb through the outer fringe of Earth’s atmosphere” some 89km/55 miles above New Mexico for four minutes of weightlessness. Unity will then glide back to Earth with its planned return to the spaceport coming 90 minutes after its departure.
Branson’s official role on board the craft is to evaluate the private astronaut experience to refine it for future clients.
Billionaire boys’ toys
Today’s launch – the culmination of 16 years work – means Branson has won the so-called “billionaire space race” against Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who aims to reach space on New Shepard, his Blue Origin space rocket on July 20. Bezo held an E-bay style auction for a seat on his rocket, which sold for $28 million in June.
When Bezos announced his dates, Branson moved Unity’s schedule forward to beat the Amazon mogul. However, Bezos’ Blue Orgin space company tweeted on Friday (July 9) that “none of our astronauts [will] have an asterisk next to their name” for only reaching an 80km altitude on Unity.
“For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line,” the tweet continues, pointing out Branson’s ship is a “high altitude airplane” rather than a “rocket”, and only has “airplane-sized windows” compared to the Good Shepard’s “largest windows in space”.
Branson claims SpaceX owner Elon Musk, – founder of Paypal, Tesla, Boring Company and others – has put down a $10,000 deposit to reserve a seat on a future Virgin Galactic flight. Branson said he might reciprocate and book a seat on a SpaceX flight, telling the Sunday Times: “Elon’s a friend and maybe I’ll travel on one of his ships one day.”
Space for all
Branson’s reputation as a daredevil adventurer was earned on boating and ballooning expeditions over past decades.
In a video posted to Twitter, he said: “My mission statement is: To turn the dream of space travel into a reality for my grandchildren, for your grandchildren, for everyone.”
He told the BBC before the flight: “I’ve wanted to go to space since I was a kid, and I want to enable hopefully hundreds of thousands of other people over the next 100 years to be able to go to space.
“And why shouldn’t they go to space? Space is extraordinary; the Universe is magnificent. I want people to be able to look back at our beautiful Earth and come home and work very hard to try to do magic to it to look after it.”