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British billionaire Richard Branson plans to soar into space Sunday

Virgin Galactic's VMS Eve airplane carries the VSS Unity spaceship under its wing. Photo courtesy of Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic's VMS Eve airplane carries the VSS Unity spaceship under its wing. Photo courtesy of Virgin Galactic

July 9 (UPI) -- British billionaire Richard Branson on Sunday plans to become the first owner of a private space company to fly into space.

The flight of Branson's Virgin Galactic VSS Unity spaceship is scheduled to lift off sometime after 9 a.m. EDT from New Mexico's private Spaceport America, about 170 miles south of Albuquerque.

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The company's gleaming white plane, VMS Eve, will carry the spaceship aloft under its 140-foot wingspan. When it reaches about 9 miles high, Unity will detach from the plane before firing its rocket engine to blast straight up to the edge of space, according to the company's mission profile.

After about 10 minutes, including several minutes of weightlessness, Unity will glide back down to the spaceport under its own power. The total length of the flight is expected to be about 90 minutes.

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Branson, 70, will be accompanied by two pilots and three other Virgin Galactic employees, who will be testing the astronaut experience of the flight, which the company intends to offer to paying customers within a year.



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"I'll be evaluating the customer spaceflight experience," Branson said in a video posted on Twitter. "As the Virgin Galactic founder, I am so proud to have this remarkable crew ... by my side as we fly to space. This July, our dream will become a reality."

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The experience will include a spectacular view of Earth and the blackness of space, Richard Garriott, a tech businessman who flew into space in 2008, said in an interview.

Garriott was a board member for the X Prize Foundation, a competition to build a suborbital rocket, when a predecessor to Virgin Galactic's spaceship, SpaceshipOne, won the prize in 2004.

"The first exciting moment of the flight will be the release from the plane, when you will briefly become weightless even before you reach space," Garriott said.

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Garriott flew to space in a Russian Soyuz capsule, during which he felt gravity forces four times that experienced by people on the Earth's surface.

"Passengers on a Virgin Galactic flight will experience up to 3 Gs, so that is still considerable and will be quite a thrill," Garriott said.

The spaceship's final altitude will be about 55 miles up, surpassing the 50-mile mark considered to define the beginning of space.

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Crew members with Branson will test a few science experiments, including one for the University of Florida that will study the impact of weightlessness on plant material.

Branson noted that he and his company have been working for 16 years to make private spaceflight a reality. He announced his plan to fly after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, a fellow billionaire, said he would fly his Blue Origin New Shepard rocket into space July 20.

Weather or technical glitches could delay either company's launch. A weather forecast for southern New Mexico on Sunday is for mostly clear and sunny skies, according to the National Weather Service.

Regardless of possible delays, the space industry is eagerly awaiting new private spaceflights, Karina Drees, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said in an email. The federation is an industry association for space-related companies.

"Soon, the number of people who want to fly themselves, an experiment, or a business idea into space will significantly increase," Drees said. "But this is just the beginning. We have much more work to do to reach our goal of fully democratizing space."

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Support teams work around the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft shortly after it landed with NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi aboard in the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City, Fla., on Sunday. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo

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