The latest billionaire space race is on—and this time it’s got nothing to do with Elon Musk or SpaceX.
After myriad false starts, it’s looking increasing like July 2021 will herald not only the beginning of the era of space tourism, but also bring a competitor to SpaceX in the business of taking astronauts into low-Earth orbit.
July will see —probably in this order—Sir Richard Branson, then Jeff Bezos take sub-orbital flights above the Kármán Line to the edge of space (about 50 miles/90km up) in their respective private spacecraft, before Boeing’s “Starliner” attempts to pass NASA’s tests to take its astronauts to space.
Here’s everything you need know about Virgin Galactic’s “Unity 22 mission” in a supersonic jet, the first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepherd space tourism rocket launch and capsule flight, and Boeing’s uncrewed “Orbital Flight Test 2” during rocket-fuelled days this July 2021:
1. Virgin Galactic Unity 22 mission
When: 9:00 am EDT, Sunday, July 11, 2021
Where: Spaceport America, New Mexico
Duration: 2.5 hours
Who’s going to be the first billionaire in space? It was only in late June 2021 that the Federal Aviation Administration licensed Virgin Galactic to fly customers to space. So perhaps it should be no surprise that the private “space line” announced that it would be opening up the flight window for its first fully crewed mission to space on July 11, 2021—and that Sir Richard Branson would be on board its supersonic jet “VSS Unity.”
Just nine days before Jeff Bezos’ planned launch on July 20, the “Unity 22” mission (VSS Unity’s 22nd mission) will see pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci and four mission specialists—including Branson—take the supersonic trip to the edge of space.
During the hour-long flight the piloted mothership VMS Eve will take-off from Spaceport America in New Mexico carrying VSS Unity underneath. At 52,000 ft. VSS Unity will separate and burn its rocket engine to accelerate to Mach 3, reaching space at 300,000 ft. The crew will then have a few minutes of weightlessness at this apogee and the chance to look at the curvature of Earth from space before a Mach 3 re-entry to Earth to land on a runway at Spaceport America.
The first Virgin Galactic mission to carry a full crew, the purpose of Unity 22 is to test the comfort, the weightless experience and the views of Earth that the spaceship delivers ahead of planned private missions in 2022.
“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,” said Branson.
2. Blue Origin New Shepard’s first crewed flight
When: Tuesday, July 20, 2021
Where: West Texas
Duration: 11 minutes
On the 52-year anniversary of America’s Apollo 11 Moon landing, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’s will take his company Blue Origin’s maiden crewed flight to space.
Surely the main space event of July until Branson’s shock announcement, there’s still a chance that weather and technical issues will delay Virgin Galactic’s mission. So Bezos could still beat Branson to space.
Bezos will be shot up into space in a capsule on Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard rocket, which is named after Alan Shepherd’s historic “first American in space” mission in the Freedom 7 spacecraft on May 5, 1961.
During the 11-minutes flight the full autonomous capsule will separate from the rocket (which will autonomously return to the launchpad) and enter space. After a few minutes of being weightless and able to see Earth from space, the capsule will return to the surface by parachute.
Inside will be Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, 82-year-old aviator Wally Funk and an as-yet-unnamed auction winner who paid $28 million for the privilege. Funk will become the oldest person ever to fly to space.
3. Boeing CST-100 Starliner Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2)
When: 2:53 p.m. EDT on Friday, July 30, 2021
Where: SLC-41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
When SpaceX launched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS) in its “Dragon” capsule in May 2020’s “Launch America” it was heralded as a new era for human spaceflight. However, that was merely the first half of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an attempt to use public-private partnerships to make space travel cheaper.
Now comes the second half as Boeing tests its “Starliner” capsule, officially known as the CST-100. After a failed Orbital Flight Test in December 2019, Starliner will once again launch uncrewed from Cape Canaveral atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
OFT-2 will see Starliner autonomously dock with the ISS and deliver cargo and crew supplies for NASA. After five to 10 days in orbit Starliner will undock and returning to Earth, parachuting down on land in the western U.S.
All eyes will be on Orbital Flight Test-2 to see if Boeing can match SpaceX and, by the end of 2021, fly Starliner’s first crewed mission to the ISS. NASA astronauts Barry Wilmore, Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke are pencilled in for that one.
Delays and glitches are always to be expected with rocket launches and space hardware, but whatever happens it’s sure to be a nail-biting 19 days that will change human spaceflight forever.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes
This Article firstly Publish on www.forbes.com