Space tourism firm Virgin Galactic will fly its founder Richard Branson on its next test flight slated for July 11th, the company confirmed Thursday. Branson’s new flight date will come before rival Jeff Bezos is expected to fly in his own space tourism rocket on July 20th, setting the stage for a largely symbolic showdown between two billionaires racing to validate their space tourism rockets.
Branson, 70, wasn’t set to fly on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane for another two tests — until Thursday, when the company announced he’d fly on July 11th “testing the private astronaut experience” alongside four mission specialists and two pilots. “I’ve always been a dreamer,” Branson tweeted after the announcement. “My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars. On July 11, it’s time to turn that dream into a reality aboard the next Virgin Galactic spaceflight.”
The mission, dubbed Unity 22, will mark Virgin Galactic’s fourth crewed test flight of VSS Unity, a spaceplane that launches from a carrier aircraft mid-air and ascends toward the edge of space to give passengers a few minutes of weightlessness. It will be “the first to carry a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists in the cabin, including the Company’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, who will be testing the private astronaut experience,” the company said in a statement.
Unity, designed to carry up to six passengers and two pilots, has been tested 22 times, with the most recent test taking place at Virgin Galactic’s lavish Spaceport America base in New Mexico. Three more test flights including Branson’s remain this year before Virgin Galactic carries out its first revenue-generating mission for the Italian Air Force. The company has some 600 reservations for paying customers on future space flights, with each ticket going for around $250,000.
Branson, in a video he tweeted, teased an additional announcement after his July 11th flight. “When we return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people a chance to become astronauts, because space does belong to us all,” he said. “So watch this space.”
Blue Origin announced last month that Bezos, its founder, will be on board its first crewed mission of New Shepard, a suborbital rocket designed to send passengers to the same heights as VSS Unity for a few minutes of weightlessness. That rocket launches vertically from the company’s remote spaceport in Van Horn, Texas. New Shepard has flown 15 times without crews on board, with the most recent uncrewed flight serving as an astronaut training rehearsal.
Virgin Galactic’s announcement comes on the same day Blue Origin announced the fourth crew member for its first crewed New Shepard flight — Wally Funk, a legendary aviator who also holds a ticket for Virgin’s VSS Unity. Bezos, his brother Mark, and the winning bidder of a $28 million auction for a New Shepard seat will also be on board for that July 20th mission. Unlike Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin hasn’t announced the ticket price for future New Shepard flights just yet.
The Federal Aviation Administration granted Virgin Galactic approval to fly space customers last week as a tweak to the company’s commercial space transportation operator license, marking the first time the FAA licensed a spaceline to fly customers. Blue Origin doesn’t have the same FAA approval to fly customers ahead of its July 20th flight with Bezos yet, but is getting close to securing it, according to a person familiar with the process.
Space blogger Parabolic Arc was the first to report on an accelerated timeline for Branson’s flight. Spokespeople for Virgin Galactic had neither confirmed nor denied the report until Thursday. A company spokeswoman said Branson’s July 11th flight hinges on “tech checks and weather, of course.”