DELAYED – Branson Blasts Off: Mach 3 to Zero G in a Natty Blue Spacesuit; Bezos trash talks


Richard Branson plans to fly to the edge of space in his Virgin Galactic rocket plane on Sunday, finally fulfilling a goal he set for himself when the company was founded more than 15 years ago.

The British entrepreneur is set to fly to the edge of space in a Virgin Galactic rocket plane on Sunday, but later than planned due to bad overnight weather in the launch area. Branson will be flying with two pilots and three other passengers, according to The Guardian. His flight is due to take place just days before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launches his own rocket, New Shepard.Photo via @virgingalactic

In a Friday tweet, Blue Origin, the rocket maker backed by Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, dismissed Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft as nothing more than a “high altitude airplane” since it won’t break the so-called Karman Line at 62 miles. Bezos plans to fly to space in a Blue Origin launch on July 20.

While representing a personal milestone for the British billionaire, the suborbital test mission will also set a template for launches carrying the hundreds of space tourists that Virgin Galactic wants to take aloft starting next year.

Here’s what Branson — and his future customers — can expect from the 90-minute trip.

Fit to Fly

Would-be astronauts don’t just have to shell out the big bucks for tickets, which at one point were priced at $250,000 each. They also must show that they’re up to the physical demands of the voyage.

Branson, who turns 71 this month, has gone through rigorous tests to prepare for the experience, enduring a centrifuge simulating extreme acceleration and a parabolic flight to induce weightlessness.

Looking the Part

Developed by Under Armour Inc., the Virgin Galactic spacesuit comes in royal blue with gold trim. The outfits are lightweight and personally tailored, with a name badge and country flag. There’s also a patch unique to each mission that can be attached to a limited-edition flight jacket for everyday wear once back on the ground. The spacesuit also sports a pocket for a picture of loved ones (another holds a sick bag).

A tight-fitting base layer will enhance blood flow during the high- and zero-gravity portions of the mission. The get-up is completed by lightweight, foam-cushioned and flame-retardant space boots like those of racecar drivers. Pilots get additional black trim and a wings emblem.

Pre-Flight Pampering

Space voyagers will begin their journey by relaxing in the Virgin Galactic Gaia lounge, the centerpiece of the Spaceport America complex in the desert scrublands of southern New Mexico.

The spaceport dates back about 15 years to when Branson and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson struck a deal for the state to build the facility in exchange for becoming home to Virgin Galactic missions.

Champagne, caviar and seared tuna are featured on the menu at the $200 million edifice designed by U.K. architects Foster + Partners. With Sunday’s spaceshot expected around 7 a.m. local time, a strong espresso from the lounge’s marble-clad “barista island” may be more in order.

Runway Takeoff

Virgin Galactic uses a two-stage system to escape Earth’s gravity.

While Branson and his fellow crew members will board the VSS Unity — designed to carry six passengers and two crew — its rocket engine initially plays no part. Instead, the vehicle is slung beneath a larger carrier aircraft, the four-engine VMS Eve. The carrier plane was developed by Scaled Composites, a developer of experimental aircraft now owned by Northrop Grumman Corp.

Eve will take off from a runway like a conventional aircraft and climb high into the sky for what’s probably the most critical part of the mission.

Rocket Science

Once Unity reaches an altitude approaching 50,000 feet (15,200 meters), it will detach from Eve and ignite its single rocket motor. It will go supersonic within eight seconds and power up to 2,600 miles per hour (4,200 kilometers per hour), or beyond Mach 3.

After 70 seconds the engine will cut out, with the spacecraft coasting to its peak altitude, which for Sunday’s mission will be a height of 55 miles or almost 300,000 feet, according to Virgin Galactic.

That’s beyond NASA’s traditional 50-mile definition of where the atmosphere ends and space starts, though short of the 62 miles where the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, which regulates aeronautical sports and record attempts, places the boundary.

In a Friday tweet, Blue Origin, the rocket maker backed by Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, dismissed Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft as nothing more than a “high altitude airplane” since it won’t break the so-called Karman Line at 62 miles. Bezos plans to fly to space in a Blue Origin launch on July 20.

I’m Floating!

Virgin Galactic’s astronauts won’t much care about definitions when they can unbuckle and experience four minutes of near weightlessness, with the Earth staring back at them through the Unity’s 17 windows. HD cameras throughout the cabin will capture every moment.

Curved Planet

In addition to microgravity, Branson and his buddies will experience two other sensations unique to space travel.

The colors outside will change from blue to indigo to midnight black as Unity climbs above the atmosphere, with the stars becoming visible and the sun shining as brightly as on the ground but against the dark sky.

In addition, the curvature of the Earth will be clearly visible, with the planet fringed by the thin strip of its atmosphere, making it readily apparent that humanity really is riding along on a sphere.

The view won’t quite match the one from the International Space Station, which orbits about 250 miles above the Earth, but will still be “incredible and life changing,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier told Bloomberg TV on July 2.

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