A spokesperson for Blue Origin declined to answer WIRED’s questions about what kind of training the Bezos brothers will receive before their flight and how the capsule’s control and navigation works, telling us instead a page on their site which indicates that New Shepard made 15 successful flights, including three tests of its capsule dropout system that will allow it to detach from the rocket in the event of a problem on the launch pad or at altitude.
Virgin Galactic VSS Unit more like a rocket plane with wings. The polished chrome six-seater is transported to about 50,000 feet above sea level by a specially built twin-fuselage aircraft called the WhiteKnightTwo. The rocket plane is released from underneath the plane, then fuels its engines for 60 seconds to explode to the edge of the 50-mile-high space, drifting there for a few minutes of joy. Once it reaches its highest point, the rear half of the vehicle folds upwards, creating a high drag and aerodynamically stable layout which allows the craft to float like a badminton shuttlecock. The increased drag keeps the craft’s speed low, while the folded shape ensures the craft maintains the proper stance. Then, after slowing down and reaching a lower altitude, the wings fold up. The spacecraft returns to its home position and lands like an airplane on a runway, in this case, at the Virgin Spaceport in New Mexico. The entire trip takes around 90 minutes from start to finish, and there is no bathroom on board.
Virgin Galactic’s path to this year’s human flights has seen fatal setbacks. Unit is the company’s second SpaceShipTwo space plane. In 2007, three employees of Scaled Composites, a company that built the craft for Virgin, were killed at a facility in the Mojave Desert during the first tests of SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engines. Scaled Composites was funded by Branson at the time.
In 2014, a later version of SpaceShipTwo exploded in mid-air, killing a co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot during a test. Federal accident investigators found inadequate design guarantees, lax regulatory oversight, and a potentially anxious co-pilot lacking recent flight experience as significant factors in the crash. At the time, Virgin officials said they were making changes to the system so that the the wing position could not be released prematurely by one or the other of the pilots, an event which led to the accident, according to the federal investigation.
Despite these incidents, Virgin Galactic did not give up and did its most recent—and successful – crew flight by VSS Unit at the end of May. Unit, the latest version of SpaceShipTwo, has been modified to increase safety measures, including a cabin pressurization system that will maintain life support should anything happen during part of the trip. The spacecraft also includes an evacuation system for crew and passengers, according to Aleanna Crane, vice president of communications for Virgin Galactic.
Right before takeoff, Branson and the other passengers will undergo three days of training at Virgin’s Spaceport in New Mexico to familiarize themselves with flight and review procedures, Crane added.
Virgin is analyzing data from the May 22 flight before planning the next one, which will require an FAA license. That means it’s still unclear whether Branson will arrive in space ahead of Bezos’ scheduled excursion on July 20. “We will have three more test flights, including two this summer,” Crane said from London. “One of which will have Richard on board.”
The third test flight will include three members of the Italian Air Force for a search mission.
NASA astronauts say flying on a short suborbital trip is not the same as getting to the International Space Station. NASA vehicles like the now retired Space Shuttle or the new SpaceX Crew Dragon depend on multiple booster rockets to get them into orbit, as well as a complex survival system, propulsion, navigation and avionics systems who tell the rocket where to go. Some of these systems are automated; others require a trained pilot, such as when docking to the ISS. In contrast, the two new commercial spacecraft are simpler in design and operation, according to Doug Hurley, a NASA astronaut who flew the First Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS in May 2020, with his colleague Bob Behnken.