Shortly after sunrise on Sunday, July 11, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo and VMS Eve, the carrier aircraft VMS Eve, will take off from a lonely runway in the middle of one of the most remote stretches of desert in North America. The suborbital spaceplane will have a full crew, including three employees, two pilots and Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the company.
Beth Moses, Virgin’s chief astronaut teacher, will be one of the crew members making the trip for the first time. Branson, 70, will be the show’s star. He has spent over 16 years and $1 billion to finally travel to the edge, to experience weightlessness, and gaze upon Earth like only a few hundred others.
Branson stated that he had always envisioned a spaceship looking like this as a child. “I thought this was the best way to fly to space.”
Sunday is more than the high-flying dreams and riches of one travel and media mogul.
Nearly a quarter of a million New Mexican taxpayers have spent nearly $250,000 to build Spaceport America , Virgin Galactic’s home, in the hope that it will be the anchor tenant for a new industry.
Governor. Michelle Lujan Grisham released a statement. “The dawning of space tourism is happening right now.”
Branson also has bragging rights, as he scheduled his flight for nine days before billionaire Jeff Bezos takes one of his Blue Origin rockets into space on July 20. Although Branson insists that there is no race between him and Bezos’, it is hard to overlook the timing.
Investors will closely monitor Branson’s participation in the Sunday test program. Virgin Galactic, a publicly traded company valued at over $11 billion, was listed on July 6. There are 700 paying customers who have waited patiently and paid over $200,000 each to ride with Virgin Galactic.
There is a larger vision beyond that of easy access to space for humanity. While our species has sent a few humans to space over the decades, the growth rate of the larger human spaceflight program has been slowing for the past couple of generations. The possibility of civilians reaching space has been virtually non-existent, except for those who have the most powerful financial or political privileges.
With Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX we are now on the brink of transitioning from one-off space tourists into regular commercial trips to microgravity and orbit, and possibly even Mars, with some superfast point-to points around the globe.
Branson states, “I believe space belongs to everyone.” “Virgin Galactic is at the forefront of a new space industry that will open up space for humanity,” Branson said.
Sunday’s flight was likely to be just one wealthy man and his employees enjoying a high-altitude thrill ride that will probably end in less than 90 minutes. It’s also a lot more than that. And it’s been a long journey to get here.
Dead Man’s Route
The Camino Real de Tierra Adentro was one of the most difficult and longest roads in history. It connected Mexico City to Santa Fe for almost three centuries between 1598-the late 19th century. The Jornada del Muerto (or Dead Man’s Route) was north of Las Cruces, and it is the most dangerous stretch of the 1,500-mile (2.414-kilometers) journey. This 100-mile long, flat, and deserted basin has been home for almost nothing since the beginning of time, but now Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic are operating commercial spaceflight operations.
You’ll also find New Mexico’s commercial spaceport, which is publicly funded. It’s located near an area that was once known as Aleman. Named the Jornada del Muerto, the Jornada del Muerto also has its German origins. He attempted to cross the desert in the dry season of 1670. After being picked up and scattered by vultures near the place where Branson and his crew will depart Sunday, his remains were found.
Despite its inability to produce anything more than suffering throughout its history, there is still hope from this deserted land. Virgin Galactic, like generations before it, has traversed the region for centuries looking for fortune and opportunity. However, Virgin Galactic believes that this desert valley, which is empty but quietly beautiful, could be the gateway to a bright future.
Virgin Galactic was established in 2004. A little more than a year later, a deal with New Mexico was made to house the company’s commercial flights at their new spaceport. This was expected to be complete by 2010. All seemed to be in order. Branson once predicted that Virgin would launch up to 50,000 passengers into space within its first ten years of operation, which could be around 2020.
Although the Spaceport opened officially in October 2011, development of Virgin Galactic’s unique horizontal launch system took a while. Virgin uses a customized carrier aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo to transport SpaceShipTwo. This is essentially a rocket powered spaceplane that is lifted to an altitude where it can be ignited and launched into space.
While the company was trying to achieve the required speed and altitude from SpaceShipTwo, a fatal accident occurred in a test flight in California in 2014. One co-pilot was killed and the other seriously injured when SpaceShipTwo Enterprise exploded shortly after it started. Virgin Galactic was eventually able to resume test flights using a new SpaceShipTwo (the VSS Unity) in December 2016, despite delays and further investigation.
This is a simple test.
Virgin Galactic’s last five years have been happier than the last half-decade, even though last year was largely lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. VSS Unity has performed better than its predecessor and carried Moses in the inaugural passenger cabin in 2019. Later that year, the company unveiled its astronaut lounge in Spaceport America and began trading on New York Stock Exchange.
A series of unveilings, including the flight suit, the passenger cabin, and the new SpaceShip III joining its fleet, have led to this Sunday. Branson and his crew will depart from the Dead Man’s Route’s center, taking advantage of a section of forgotten dry earth to reach places that generations of poor visitors to the same valley couldn’t even imagine.
It’s easy for people to forget that Branson’s first space flight is technically still a test flight. His role in the mission is to supposedly “evaluate the private astronaut experience.” Unity will return to the ground after which the company plans to conduct at least two more tests before considering putting paying customers onboard. This is likely to be no later than 2022, although the company has the FAA approval.
Details of Sunday’s flight are as sparse as the watering hole between Truth or Consequences and Las Cruces. However, we do know that WhiteKnightTwo will take off at 7:15 AM local time (6:15 PT). According to previous test flights, the time it takes for the carrier craft to reach the altitude at which VSS Unity ignites its rocket engine and detaches from it is approximately 30 minutes.
After reaching an altitude of approximately 56 miles (90 km), the spacecraft will then fly in microgravity for about a minute before returning to Spaceport America for landing. This should take no more than 90 seconds.