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EXPLAINED: Who Is Richard Branson And How He Is Looking To Bring Space Closer To Humans

VSS Unity 22 Crew (From the left: Dave Mackay, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla and Michael Masucci)

VSS Unity 22 Crew (From the left: Dave Mackay, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla and Michael Masucci)

As he pips fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos in the race to the edge of space, here's a look at Richard Branson's mission to make bring spaceflight closer to humans

A 90-minute flight for Richard Branson could open a new window to eternity for ordinary humans as his Virgin Galactic company takes its biggest step to making a journey to space a reality for everybody. With an Indian-origin flyer in tow, Branson is out to demonstrate to the world that spaceflight is simple and safe as he looks to flag off what many have said would be a new space age. Here’s what you need to know.

Who Is Richard Branson?

Synonymous with his Virgin Group, the British-born serial entrepreneur worth $5.5 billion describes himself on his Twitter handle as a “tie-loathing adventurer, philanthropist & troublemaker, who believes in turning ideas into reality". Known for his flamboyance and maverick ways, Branson says that he is “otherwise known as Dr Yes" at the Virgin Group, the company that had its roots in a music store he had opened in the 1970s in London. Over a business journey spanning more than 50 years — his first venture was a magazine called ‘Student’ whose first edition had launched in the UK in 1966 — Branson has dabbled in everything from airlines to cosmetics.

If he is one of the most well-recognised faces in the world of business, there is the adventurous side to Branson, too, that has seen him set records in powerboat racing and hot-air ballooning. His profile on the Virgin website says that Branson has described Virgin Galactic, which is the company with which he is pursuing his spaceflight plans, as being “the greatest adventure of all”.

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How Far Into Space Is He Flying?

Earlier this month, Virgin galactic had said that the “flight window for the next rocket-powered test flight of its SpaceShipTwo Unity opens July 11, pending weather and technical checks". This mission has been termed “Unity 22" as it is the 22nd flight test for VSS Unity, the vessel on which Branson and five others are headed to the edge of space. It is also the company’s fourth crewed spaceflight and the first to carry a “full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists in the cabin", including Branson, who will be “testing the private astronaut experience".

The culmination of 16 years’s work, the Unity 22 mission will take the six crew members about 90 km above the surface of the Earth to the notional line where the atmosphere ends and space begins. It is a place from where the passengers can see Earth lit up against the inky black of space and also feel zero gravity.

“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us. After more than 16 years of research, engineering, and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry, which is set to open space to humankind and change the world for good," Branson said in a statement announcing the launch.

What Is The Vessel That Is Taking Branson To Space?

According to Virgin Galactic, its spaceflight system actually comprises two vehicles — the carrier aircraft VSS Eve, named after Branson’s mother, and the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) VSS Unity spaceplane. With the spaceship harnessed to it, VSS Eve takes off from a runway before climbing to a height of 50,000 feet.

Once at the desired elevation, VSS Eve will release the spaceplane, whose rocket then ignites, “sending the craft up to space" at a speed of a little over Mach 3. The spaceship finally reaches a height of 300,000 feet, or roughly 90km, above Earth’s surface. On the way back, first, “the ship’s wings raise up 60 degrees (and)… after the ship descends to thick atmosphere, the wings are lowered and the pilot glides the spaceship to a smooth landing back on the same runway".

“The total duration of the flight is approximately 90 minutes with several minutes of weightlessness," Virgin Galactic said.

Who Are Branson’s Fellow Passengers?

The first trip with a full crew, the Unity 22 mission is designed to “focus on cabin and customer experience objectives" and, among other things, will evaluate “the cabin environment, seat comfort, the weightless experience, and the views of Earth that the spaceship delivers".

With those goals in mind, the seats on the flight will be filled by key personnel at Virgin Galactic, including the Indian-origin Sirisha Bandla, a vice president at the company who will be “evaluating the human-tended research experience. Bandla is set to become the third India origin woman to fly to space after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams, both of whom were part of missions by US space agency Nasa.

The other crew members accompanying Branson and Bandla in the cabin are Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, and Colin Bennett, the company’s lead operations engineer.

The carrier aircraft will be flown by two pilots, while the space plane will be handled by Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, who are part of the company’s team of eight pilots.

How Soon Will Tickets Be Available For Flying To Space?

Virgin Galactic said in a statement that there are “approximately 600 future astronauts from 60 countries who have a reservation for a Virgin Galactic flight". It further added that about 1,000 people have “placed deposits" with the company’s ‘One Small Step’ programme and they will “be front of line for firm seat reservations, once they become available".

Virgin Galactic has said that it is on track to launch commercial space trips in 2022. Before that though there “will be two more test flights in the coming months, including a revenue-generating flight with the

Italian Air Force".

But Branson’s company will not be the only option for those looking to travel to the edge of space. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is also flying to the same area of space later this month with his Blue Origin company, too, looking to launch commerical spaceflight operations.

Where Can You See The Virgin Galactic Launch?

Virgin Galactic has invited “audiences around the world… to participate virtually" in Sunday’s launch and the event will be livestreamed on virgingalactic.com with the feed to also be available on the Virgin Galactic Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook channels.

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first published:July 11, 2021, 14:18 IST