Decades after his fame as a wealthy and bold tycoon during a series of boating and hot-air balloon expeditions, Richard Branson is ready to promote his thriving astronomical tourism business by pushing himself to the last frontier.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic will send the company’s passenger rocket plane VSS Unity to the edge of space for its first manned test flight on Sunday. The British billionaire founder is one of six.

This gleaming white space plane will be carried by a twin-fuselage aircraft carrier named VMS Eve (named after Branson’s mother) to an altitude of 50,000 feet, where Unity will be released and powered by a rocket to an almost vertical Way to fly over the outer rim of Earth’s atmosphere.

At the apex of the flight approximately 55 miles (89 kilometers) above the New Mexico desert, the crew will experience a few minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to Earth.

If everything goes according to plan, the flight will last about 90 minutes and end where it started—on a runway at the US Spaceport, close to the aptly named town of truth or consequence.

Virgin’s Unity 22 mission marked the 22nd test flight of the spacecraft, and also the company’s fourth manned mission beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

But it will be the first to carry a complete space traveller-two pilots and four “mission experts”, including Branson.

Milestones and publicity

Although the mission is seen as a potential milestone in helping transform citizen rocket travel into a mainstream commercial adventure, space flight remains an inherently dangerous endeavor.

In 2014, an early prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over the Mojave Desert in California. One pilot died and the other was seriously injured.

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If successful, Sunday’s flight will also allow Branson to brag about defeating rival Jeff Bezos and his space company Blue Origin in a competition known as the “Billionaire Space Race.” Bezos, founder of online retail giant, plans to fly on the Blue Origin suborbital rocket New Shepard later this month.

According to Virgin Atlantic news sources, Branson’s official job in flight is to “evaluate the experience of private astronauts”, and his observations will be used to “improve the journey of all future astronaut customers.”

But Marco Cáceres, a senior space analyst at the Virginia-based consulting firm Teal Group, said that both Branson and Bezos’ free riders were “a bit of a publicity stunt.”

Cáceres said: “If they succeed, their career will be taken more seriously.” “There are many millionaires in the world who are willing to take risks as long as they think it is relatively safe.”

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, as well as billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are head-to-head in the emerging space tourism business, even though Musk has a big start.

SpaceX plans to put its first civilian crew (without Musk) into orbit in September, and has already launched a large number of cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station.

The 70-year-old Branson insisted that wealthy astronauts who want to become citizens have many needs, and that he has no intention of trying to seize the limelight from Bezos.

‘Not a game’

“To be honest, this is not a game,” Branson said in an interview with Reuters earlier this week. “If this is a game, it will be a game to make a wonderful spacecraft so that more people can enter space. I think these are our two goals.”

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The two pilots of the space shuttle, Dave McKay and Michael Masucci, will control the ignition and shutdown of the spacecraft’s rocket engines and activate the aircraft’s “feather-like” tail maneuver to re-enter.

The other three mission experts are Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, chief operating engineer, Virgin Galactic; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of research operations and government affairs.

Virgin brands, including Branson’s airline and former record company, have long been associated with the pranks of their ostentatious founders. Branson set a new record for the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic in 1986, and his initial attempt a year later ended with a RAF helicopter rescue when his ship capsized.

In 1987, he completed a record-breaking Atlantic crossing in a hot air balloon, but he had to be rescued from the sea again. He continued to break at least two other balloon speed records, but failed to complete any of the three bids for ballooning around the earth.

As for the Sunday flight, Branson said this week that he was excited, “I really don’t think there is anything to be afraid of.”

Assuming that the mission goes well, Virgin Atlantic stated that it plans to conduct two further test flights of the spaceplane before starting commercial service next year.

The company stated that it has received more than 600 flight bookings, each with a price of approximately US$250,000 (approximately Rs 19 crore), but hopes to eventually reduce the cost per seat to US$40,000 (approximately Rs 2.98 million) .

© Thomson Reuters 2021