Sir Richard Branson (left) and CEO Michael Colglazier celebrate the company’s third space test on May 22, 2021.
Jeff Bezos plans to venture to the edge of space on July 20th, but his billionaire colleague Sir Richard Branson could still try to fly Virgin Galactic first.
Virgin Galactic’s leadership previously announced that the company would conduct three more space flights to complete development tests of the VSS Unity spacecraft. The company is working to start flying paying passengers in early 2022 after completing a successful mission with just two pilots last month
Under this plan, the first of the next three flights would carry four passengers to test the spacecraft’s cabin, the second would fly with Branson, and the third would fly members of the Italian Air Force for professional astronaut training.
But a report earlier this month from a blogger based in Mojave, Calif. – where Virgin Galactic makes its vehicles – said the company is considering reorganizing its flight schedule to take Branson off next instead of the second. The report came shortly after Bezos announced that he would be flying on Blue Origin’s first passenger space flight, which was scheduled to take off on July 20 – suggesting that Branson might still try to beat Bezos by hitting on the weekend of April 4 July personally flies into space.
Jeff Bezos is heading to where the New Shepard capsule landed in the Texas desert after a test flight in April 2021.
Virgin Galactic has neither confirmed nor denied that it is considering reorganizing its space plan, CEO Michael Colglazier emphasized in an interview with CNBC.
“I know there is a lot of interest and speculation, but we haven’t announced the date or the people who will be there,” said Colglazier. “We have three more flights in our flight test program and we are on this path and will continue on this path.”
Branson’s Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004, and Bezos’ Blue Origin, founded in 2000, compete to take passengers to the edge of space on short flights, a sector known as suborbital tourism. The company’s space probes reach an altitude of around 80 to 100 kilometers (or around 260,000 to 330,000 feet) and spend a few minutes in weightlessness.
Virgin Galactic’s shares rose more than 30% in trading Friday after it was announced that the FAA had granted the company the license it needs to fly passengers on future space flights.
“The flight test program is now shifting from … some of the technical aspects – which we have continued to prove for ourselves and for the FAA – and are now shifting to the cabin experience,” said Colglazier. “The first of these [next three spaceflights] we said we would have four mission specialists, the second also, and then one, followed by the Italian astronauts. “
Virgin Galactic’s Unity spacecraft prepares for flight.
Colglazier emphasized that “the May 22 flight was very successful for us” and with the FAA approval now in place, Virgin Galactic is “turning to see when we will be ready for our next space flight”.
While Virgin Galactic is hoping to fly multiple starships each week, the company’s VSS Unity spacecraft is currently the only one in its fleet, making turnaround time a key factor if Branson plans to launch before July 20th.
When Virgin Galactic made its first and second spaceflights more than two years ago, it took the company 71 days to turn the spacecraft around between launches.
In order to be able to start the next space flight by the 4th of July weekend, the spaceship has to be prepared in just 43 days. But a turnaround time of 71 days would mean Virgin Galactic’s next space flight departs on August 1st, a few weeks after Bezos plans the flight.
However, Virgin Galactic used to launch rocket-powered test flights faster. When the company began testing in 2018, it launched VSS Unity on three rocket-powered flights at increasingly higher altitudes as it got closer to space. On these three rocket-powered flights – launched on April 5, May 29 and July 26, 2018 – VSS turned Unity around in 54 and 58 days, respectively.
Launching before July 20 would require Virgin Galactic to prepare VSS Unity in 58 days or less – essentially faster than ever.
At the moment, Colglazier said Virgin Galactic was “just not at one point” to discuss when the next spaceflight would be possible.
“We are very methodical about this, with safety first, and when we have checked all of those boxes and taken all steps, then we can go ahead and make that known,” said Colglazier.
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