The rocket motor could fail to light up. The cabin could lose pressure and threaten the passengers’ lives. And the intense physics involved when hurtling out of — and back into — the Earth’s atmosphere could tear the vehicle apart.
Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, after watching a space plane called SpaceShipOne rocket into space to win the Ansari X Prize. Branson bought the rights to that tech, and a team of engineers set to work developing a larger vehicle capable of carrying two pilots and up to six paying customers on a high-speed joy rides. The evolved designed is called SpaceShipTwo.
SpaceShipTwo takes off from an airplane runway attached beneath the wing of a massive, custom-designed quad-jet double-fuselage mothership known as WhiteKnightTwo. Once the mothership reaches about 40,000 feet, the rocket-powered plane is dropped from in between WhiteKnightTwo’s twin fuselages, and fires up its engine to swoop directly upward, accelerating up to more than three times the speed of sound, or 2,300 miles an hour.
Once it reaches the very top of its flight path, it hangs, suspended in microgravity, as it flips onto its belly before gliding back down to a runway landing. From takeoff to landing, the whole trip takes roughly an hour.
But after VSS Unity’s third test flight in May, the company received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to begin flying passengers. That doesn’t mean, however, that the FAA — which is focused primarily on ensuring safety of people and property on the ground — is guaranteeing the spacecraft is safe. That decision is left up to Virgin Galactic, and the company made the surprise announcement on July 1 that Branson would be on the very next test flight — becoming the first non-crew member ever to make the trek — this Sunday.
“It’s kind of a difficult decision to make — if you’re ready, or if you’re not ready, because there is some risk remaining. But if you don’t try it, you’re also not going to learn,” Guerster said. “I think the first group of people who will fly on this acknowledge the risk. There are plenty people out there who climb Mount Everest.”
Orbital vs. Suborbital flights
When most people think about spaceflight, they think about an astronaut circling the Earth, floating in space, for at least a few days.
That is not what Branson — or Bezos, for that matter — will be doing.
They’ll be going up and coming right back down. Virgin Galactic’s flights are be brief, up-and-down trips, though they will go more than 50 miles above Earth, which the United States government considers to mark the boundary of outer space.
New Shepard vs. SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic’s space plane has some inherent advantages: The fact that VSS Unity has wings and takes off horizontally from a runway give the pilots more time to correct course if something goes wrong. With the New Shepard’s rocket-and-capsule system Bezos will be flying on, there’s slimmer room for error, according to Guerster. Though, New Shepard does have an emergency escape system in place that can eject passengers away from a malfunctioning rocket, and jettison them to a parachute landing if necessary.
The other major difference between the spacecraft is that VSS Unity requires two pilots to fly, while New Shepard is fully automated. Experts are split when it comes to assessing those different approaches.
“You can’t really say what is better what is worse,” Guerster said.
Still, New Shepard has also flown 15 different test missions and never had a catastrophic accident. And that’s why Guerster said that — if he had to choose which spacecraft he’d strap himself into first — he’d chose Bezos’ New Shepard.
But then, Guerster added, he’d also be willing to take a trip on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity.
“I think it’s a more exciting ride,” he said.