After years of promises, billionaire Richard Branson may finally be going to space aboard Virgin Galactic’s space plane. The 11 July mission planned to carry him and three other passengers will be the company’s most ambitious test to date – but questions remain about whether or not it will actually reach space.
Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 with a goal of providing suborbital flights to scientists and space tourists starting in 2009. Its main craft is SpaceShipTwo, a space plane that launches from a larger airplane mid-flight. The craft’s first iteration, the VSS Enterprise, crashed during a 2014 test flight, killing one pilot and badly injuring the other, so the company paused testing until 2016.
That year, testing began on the VSS Unity, the craft intended to carry Branson and three other Virgin Galactic executives. The upcoming flight will be the company’s fourth crewed test flight and the first to carry passengers beyond the two pilots.
However, the question of whether it will technically reach space is still unclear. The highest altitude that the VSS Unity has reached so far is about 90 kilometres, which counts as space under the standards of the US government but doesn’t reach the commonly used international standard of the Kármán line, which is 100 kilometres above Earth’s surface.
Blue Origin, the other major player in the suborbital flight business, has pointed this out in statements. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, is planning a trip to space – above the Kármán line – aboard the company’s New Shepard rocket on 20 July. So if it is a true race to space, Bezos may beat Branson even if Branson flies first.
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