Richard Branson will finally get his space trip on Sunday.
It’s been a very long wait for Mr. Branson, the disrespectful 70-year-old British billionaire who runs a galaxy of Virgin businesses. In 2004, he founded Virgin Galactic to bring adventurous tourists to the edge of space and back in rocket-powered aircraft.
At the time, he thought the commercial service would begin in two to three years. Instead, almost 17 years have passed. Virgin Galactic says there are three more test flights to be done, including the one on Sunday, before it can be ready for paying passengers.
For this flight, Mr. Branson will be a member of the crew. Its job is to evaluate the cabin experience for future customers.
When is the flight and how can I see it?
The flight is scheduled to take off on Sunday morning from Spaceport America in New Mexico, about 180 miles south of Albuquerque.
What is the Virgin Galactic spaceplane and what will it do?
The rocket plane, a type called SpaceShipTwo, is about the size of an executive jet. In addition to the two pilots, there are four people in the cabin. This particular SpaceShipTwo is called VSS Unity.
To take off from the ground, Unity is brought to an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet by a larger aircraft. There Unity is released and the engine of the rocket plane is ignited. The acceleration will make people on board feel a force up to 3.5 times their normal weight as they travel to an altitude of more than 80 miles.
At the top of the arch, passengers can get up from their seats and experience apparent weightlessness for about four minutes. Of course, they won’t have escaped gravity. At fifty miles up the earth’s downward gravitational pull is essentially as strong as it is on the ground; rather, the passengers fall at the same speed as the aircraft around them.
The two tail booms at the rear of the spacecraft rotate into a “feathered” configuration that creates more drag and stability and allows the aircraft to enter the Earth’s atmosphere more gently. This configuration makes SpaceShipTwo more like a badminton shuttlecock, which always falls with the pointed side down, than an airplane.
Nevertheless, the forces that can be felt on the passengers when descending are greater than when ascending and reach six times the force of gravity.
Once the aircraft is back in the atmosphere, the tail booms rotate back down and the aircraft glides off for a landing. The entire flight can take less than two hours.
Who are the crew members on board the flight?
The pilots are David Mackay and Michael Masucci.
In addition to Mr. Branson, three Virgin Galactic employees will evaluate what the experience will be like for future paying customers. You are Beth Moses, the lead instructor for the astronauts; Colin Bennett, chief operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations. Ms. Bandla will also conduct a science experiment provided by the University of Florida.
Is Virgin Galactic’s Spaceplane Safe?
The federal government does not impose any regulations on the safety of passengers on a spaceship like Virgin Galactic’s. Unlike commercial passenger aircraft, the rocket aircraft has not been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. In fact, the FAA is legally prohibited from making such requirements until 2023.
The rationale is that emerging aerospace companies like Virgin Galactic need a “learning curve” to try out designs and processes, and that too much regulation too soon would stifle innovations that would lead to better, more efficient designs.
Future passengers have to sign forms in which the “informed consent” to the risks is confirmed, similar to parachuting or bungee jumping.
What the FAA regulates is ensuring the safety of people who are not on the plane – that is, if something goes wrong, the risk to the “innocent public” on the ground is tiny.
Virgin Galactic’s design already has an imperfect safety record. The company’s first spaceplane, the VSS Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014 when the co-pilot moved a lever too early in flight, which allowed the tail booms to rotate if they were supposed to stay rigid. The Enterprise broke apart and co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed. The pilot Peter Siebold survived the parachute jump from the plane.
The controls have been redesigned so that the tail boom cannot be unlocked prematurely.
In 2019, Virgin Galactic came close to yet another catastrophe when a new metal thermal sheet was improperly installed, covering holes that allow air trapped in a horizontal stabilizer – the small horizontal wing on the tail of an aircraft – to be removed when the aircraft emanating from it rises into the thinned layers of the atmosphere. Instead, the pressure of the trapped air ripped a seal along one of the stabilizers.
The mishap was revealed earlier this year in the book “Test Gods” by Nicholas Schmidle, an employee of the New Yorker. The book quotes Todd Ericson, then vice president of security and testing for Virgin Galactic, as saying, “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and killed three people.”