On July 11th, Virgin Galactic will launch Richard Branson and three company employees to the edge of space. The company promises quite a show for the mission, with Stephen Colbert hosting the live stream. Following the spaceplane’s landing, singer-songwriter Khalid will reportedly perform a new single live on stage. And Branson has stated that he will “announce something fascinating” following his spaceflight.
The flight is one of the company’s final test missions before it hopes to begin commercial space tourism operations next year. Dubbed Unity 22, the mission will be Virgin Galactic’s fourth flight to space carrying humans, with the largest crew. Four people, including Branson, will test the astronaut cabin experience, and two pilots will be in the cockpit.
On Sunday morning, Virgin Galactic’s twin-fuselage WhiteKnight carrier aircraft will take off from Spaceport America, the company’s spaceport in New Mexico. The WhiteKnight aircraft, VMS Eve, will transport a rocket-powered spaceship called VSS Unity, which Branson and others will crew.
Unity will drop from the mothership about 40 minutes after takeoff and ignite its rocket engine moments later, sending Branson and the crew to the edge of space, about 55 miles high, for a few minutes of weightlessness. Unity, like any other commercial aircraft, will return to a landing strip at Spaceport America.
Unity 22 is a significant step forward for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism ambitions, a burgeoning market catering to wealthy adventurers. Since its inception in 2004, the company has sold approximately 600 tickets, with each ticket costing roughly $250,000.
Branson is only one of the billionaire-led races to attract space tourists. He is competing against Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which plans to launch passengers on its suborbital New Shepard rocket. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX intends to put tourists in its orbital Crew Dragon capsule for a more protracted and more expensive space experience.
Sunday’s mission has also been surrounded by an increasingly heated atmosphere of rivalry with Bezos. Virgin Galactic announced Branson’s spaceflight just a few weeks after Blue Origin announced Bezos’s trip to space on July 20th. Then, on July 20th, Blue Origin announced that it would also fly Wally Funk, an aviator who initially planned to fly on Virgin Galactic’s spaceship.
Branson denies that his new flight date was chosen to beat Bezos to space, telling The Washington Post last week that it was simply a “wonderful coincidence that we’re going up in the same month.” Virgin Galactic’s live stream will begin at 9 a.m. ET on Sunday and will be available on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.