Branson onboard Virgin Galactic’s 11 July test flight

Virgin Founder confirmed among four "mission specialists"

Sir Richard Branson will be shooting to the stars with Virgin Galactic on the first fully crewed spaceflight, earmarked for on or around 11 July 2021. Branson will be one of six aboard the next rocket-powered test flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico, USA.

The announcement comes within a week of Virgin Galactic being been granted its full commercial launch licence for space flights by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA updated Virgin Galactic’s existing space transportation operator licence to allow the spaceline to fly customers to space. Branson’s space tourism enterprise received its operator’s licence in 2016.

Last week’s update represents the first time the FAA has licensed a spaceline to fly customers. “It is further validation of the company’s methodical testing program, which has met the verification and validation criteria required by the FAA,” Virgin Galactic said.

Virgin Galactic's Unity 22 flight crew: Dave Mackay, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla and Michael Masucci

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Pending weather and technical checks, Branson (Astronaut 001) will lift off on the “Unity 22” mission (symbolising the 22nd flight of VSS Unity) which will be Virgin Galactic’s fourth crewed spaceflight. It will be the first test flight to carry a full crew, consisting of two pilots and four mission specialists.

The other mission specialists include Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor (Astronaut 002); Colin Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer; Sirisha Bandla, VP of Government Affairs and Research Operations. They will join Branson in trialing the Virgin Galactic customer experience: cabin environment, seat comfort, weightless experience, and views of Earth from the spaceship.

Pilots for mission 22 will be Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci flying VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer flying VMS Eve.

For the first time, the inflight cabin experience will live-streamed on the day of the flight (starting from around 11pm AEDST).

After the next two test flights, Virgin Galactic says it expects to commence commercial service in 2022.

“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” Branson remarked.

“After more than 16 years of research, engineering, and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry, which is set to open space to humankind and change the world for good.

“It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality. As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honoured to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.”

In a video (above) announcing the flight, Branson added post spaceflight he will be announcing something to “give more people the chance to become astronauts.”

Richard Branson wears the Virgin Galactic and Under Armour Spacesuit © Virgin Galactic

Just days ago in the US for the latest satellite launch of his separate company Virgin Orbit, Branson would not be drawn on providing reporters with a date as to when he anticipated heading into space.

Fellow billionaire and space mogul, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is targeting a 20 July 2021 flight in his Blue Origin rocket which will have people on board for the first time. Pundits suggested there was a race between the two human-headlines as to which of the billionaire owners would be the first in space.

Branson, who turns 71 this month, told reports he’s “not apprehensive at all” about launching into space.

Virtuoso Chairman, Matthew Upchurch, will be among the first batch of Virgin Galactic’s Astronauts to take to space.

Lead image: Virgin Galactic spaceflight © Virgin Galactic

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