Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson have been working for the past 20 years to get their companies’ rockets built and launched. Now both are preparing to suit up and ride their own spacecraft. Bezos announced on Monday that he’ll blast off July 20 on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, riding to the limit of Earth’s atmosphere. Meanwhile, Branson is expected to fly this summer on the Virgin Galactic VSS Unity rocket plane to the same zone.
The rich-guy space race between Bezos and Branson (SpaceX’s Elon Musk is the odd man out for now) may convince other well-heeled space tourists who want assurances that a rocket ride is both fun and safe. But experts note that space travel is always risky, even when spacecraft have undergone years of testing. Blue Origin’s flight will be its first launch with human passengers; previous flights have only carried a mannequin. For Virgin Galactic, it will be only the second time the rocket plane has carried people.
“When you’re flying humans, it’s always one step more complex than just flying an uncrewed mission, and that’s because you have the lives of six people that you have to worry about,” says Laura Forczyk, an Atlanta-based space industry consultant who has flown several times with NASA on zero-g research flights. “Blue Origin has no reason to fear that something will go wrong, but you never know. Space is a risky business.”
Blue Origin’s flight to the edge of space—known as suborbital—will only last about 10 to 15 minutes, just enough time to reach an altitude to allow Bezos, his brother Mark, and four more passengers to float in weightlessness. (The others will include Blue Origin employees and the winner of an online auction that currently stands at $3.8 million and ends Saturday.) Then the capsule will return to Earth under three parachutes and land in the West Texas desert.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule is 100 percent automated. There’s no pilot and the passengers can’t maneuver or adjust course. The only task that passengers have to accomplish is to unbuckle and then rebuckle their seatbelts, so they can float around and watch the Earth roll by through the capsule’s massive windows.
A Blue Origin spokesperson declined to answer questions from WIRED about the kind of training the Bezos brothers will receive in advance of their flight, and about how control and navigation of the capsule works, instead pointing us to a page on their website that states that New Shepard has made 15 successful flights, including three tests of its capsule abort system that will allow it to detach from the rocket in case something goes wrong on the launchpad or while aloft.
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity is more like a rocket plane with wings. The polished-chrome six-seater is carried to about 50,000 feet in altitude by a specially built double-fuselage aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo. The rocket plane is released from underneath the aircraft, and then powers up its engines for 60 seconds to blast to the 50-mile-high edge of space, drifting there for a few minutes of joy. Once it reaches its highest point, the rear half of the vehicle folds upwards, which creates a high-drag, aerodynamically stable layout that 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 appropriate attitude. Then, after it slows and reaches lower altitude, the wings fold back down. The spacecraft returns to its original position and lands like an airplane on a runway, in this case, at Virgin’s New Mexico spaceport. The whole trip lasts about 90 minutes from start to finish, and there’s no bathroom on board.
Virgin Galactic’s path to this year’s human flights has experienced some fatal setbacks. Unity is the company’s second SpaceShipTwo spaceplane. In 2007, three employees of Scaled Composites, a firm building the craft for Virgin, were killed at a Mojave Desert facility during early testing of SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engines. Scaled Composites was financed by Branson at the time.
In 2014, a later version of SpaceShipTwo broke apart in midair, killing a copilot and seriously injuring the pilot during a test. Federal accident investigators found inadequate design safeguards, lax regulatory oversight, and a potentially anxious copilot lacking recent flight experience as important factors in the crash. At the time, Virgin officials said they were making changes to the system so that the wing position could not be released prematurely by either pilot, an event that led to the crash, according to the federal investigation.
Despite these incidents, Virgin Galactic hasn’t given up, and made its most recent—and successful—crewed flight of VSS Unity in late May. Unity, the latest version of SpaceShipTwo, has been modified to increase safety measures, including a cabin pressurization system that will maintain life support if something should happen during any part of the trip. The spacecraft also includes an escape system for the crew and passengers, according to Aleanna Crane, vice president of communications for Virgin Galactic.
Just prior to liftoff, Branson and the other passengers will undergo three days of training at Virgin’s New Mexico spaceport to familiarize themselves with the 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 not clear whether Branson will get to space before Bezos’ planned July 20 excursion. “We will have three additional test flights, two of them in the 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 research mission.
NASA astronauts say that flying on a short suborbital trip is not the same as traveling to the International Space Station. NASA vehicles like the now-retired Space Shuttle or the new SpaceX Crew Dragon depend on several booster rockets to get them into orbit, as well as complex life support, propulsion, navigation, and avionics systems that tell the rocket where to go. Some of these systems are automated; others require a trained pilot, such as during docking with the ISS. In contrast, the two new commercial spacecraft are simpler in design and operation, according to Doug Hurley, a NASA astronaut who piloted the first Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS in May, 2020, along with colleague Bob Behnken.
“None of it is easy,” Hurley says of human spaceflight. “We ask a lot of the vehicles, whether it’s a suborbital or orbital flight, to bring the occupants and the crews back safely. But, certainly, anybody who really understands this business knows intimately that there is a huge difference between getting the vehicle into orbit, and getting a vehicle to do a suborbital flight.”
Hurley, who also flew two Space Shuttle missions, says the way to reduce risks is through equipment testing and crew training. While the private space companies haven’t flown as many people as NASA has, over the past 10 years they have put their spacecraft through rigorous testing programs. Hurley remembers Elon Musk coming to him before liftoff last year to ease any of his concerns. “He said, ‘We’ve done everything we possibly could,’” Hurley recalls. “‘We have gone back through the data and the numerous times we’ve asked everyone, even the interns at SpaceX, if there’s anything else that we should look at—if there’s anything else that we need to do before we put these guys on this vehicle.’”
The big difference between Crew Dragon and the Space Shuttle is that the newer spacecraft has an escape system that works on the launchpad and during takeoff. There were times where the shuttle crew had no chance for survival if something went wrong, like during the 1986 Challenger explosion just after liftoff and 2003 Columbia breakup during re-entry. “I was much safer on Crew Dragon than the shuttle,” Hurley says. “No question.”
Both the Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin spacecraft might have a safety advantage because of their simplicity, says Garrett Reisman, a former shuttle astronaut who worked for SpaceX to design the Crew Dragon capsule. “Once the engines light, there’s nothing any human does,” Reisman says about the New Shepard rocket. “It’s on autopilot the whole way. They are just watching and the software is doing everything.”
“Their life support is very simple and only has to work for about 10 minutes,” Reisman continues. Unlike a longer-duration mission to the space station, the two commercial suborbital spacecraft “don’t have carbon dioxide scrubbing equipment or anything for recycling wastewater and turning it into drinking water,” he adds. “There’s no toilet to worry about. There’s no spacesuit, and you don’t have to worry about how it will interface with the vehicle.”
Fewer systems mean fewer things to go wrong, agrees Hurley. At the same time, they both say that risks of spaceflight cannot be eliminated, even with redundant technological systems, testing and crew training. And Hurley points out that once spaceflight becomes more routine, that’s when things can go wrong. “You got everybody looking out for you when you’re on the first flight—but you want to make sure that that vigilance stays throughout the length of the program, to the tenth flight and the twentieth flight,” Hurley says. “Every flight is important, because every flight has people on it.”
Update 6-10-214 2:43 PM ET: This story was updated to correct the description of the 2014 incident involving SpaceShipTwo.
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