Branson Astronaut 001
Richard Branson will be "Astronaut 001" on the next SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceflight July 11, going to space days before Jeff Bezos flies on Blue Origin's New Shepard. Credit: Virgin Galactic

WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson will be on the company’s next flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle July 11, going to space days before fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos.

Virgin Galactic announced late July 1 that it had scheduled its next flight of SpaceShipTwo, called “Unity 22,” for July 11 at no earlier than 9 a.m. Eastern from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The flight will have pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci at the controls, both of whom have previously flown SpaceShipTwo beyond the 80-kilometer altitude the company considers the boundary of space.

In the vehicle’s cabin will be Branson and three Virgin Galactic employees: chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and vice president of government affairs and research operations Sirisha Bandla. They will test the vehicle’s cabin in preparation of future flights of tourists and researchers. It will be the first flight to space for all four but Moses, who was on a SpaceShipTwo flight in February 2019.

Virgin Galactic previously stated that the next SpaceShipTwo test flight would carry four company personnel in the cabin, along with two pilots, to evaluate the cabin. That was to be followed by a second flight with Branson on board.

However, a report last month suggested that Virgin Galactic was considering moving up Branson’s flight, performing it as soon as July 4. The company never formally commented on the report, and Branson, in comments as recently as June 30, declined to state when he expected to fly, citing Virgin Galactic’s status as a publicly traded company.

Virgin said in its announcement that it will use Branson’s experience on the flight “to enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers” based on his efforts in other Virgin Group companies, from airlines to hotels.

“Tapping into Sir Richard’s expertise and long history of creating amazing customer experiences will be invaluable as we work to open the wonder of space travel and create awe-inspiring journeys for our customers,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in the statement.

“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,” Branson said in the statement. “As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honored to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.”

The change in flight plans also is a game of one-upmanship with its rival, Blue Origin, and its billionaire founder Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin announced May 5 its first New Shepard suborbital flight with people on board will take place July 20 from its test site in West Texas.

On June 7, Blue Origin announced that its billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, will be on that flight, along with his brother Mark. Earlier July 1, Blue Origin said Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” women who sought to be astronauts six decades ago, will also be on the flight. The fourth and final person, whose name has not yet been disclosed, is the winner of a June 12 auction, bidding $28 million for the seat.

In a video Virgin Galactic posted to Twitter, Branson said he would make an announcement of some kind after the July 11 trip to the edge of space. “And when we return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people a chance to become astronauts,” he said.

He didn’t elaborate on that, but company executives previously said that they expected to resume ticket sales, which had been on hold since the October 2014 crash of the first SpaceShipTwo, after Branson flew to space.

Despite moving up Branson’s flight, Virgin Galactic said they still expected to perform two more flights this year. One of those flights will be a revenue-generating flight for the Italian Air Force. It will then start full-scale commercial operations in 2022, after a maintenance period for both SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...