Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic delay spaceflight 90 minutes, still plan to make history Sunday

  • Richard Branson is accompanied by two pilots and three mission specialists.
  • Branson, who turns 71 in a week, had originally planned the flight for later this summer.
  • Virgin Galactic has plans for two more test flights before commercial service begins in 2022.

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. – Virgin Galactic and founder-passenger Richard Branson on Sunday delayed for 90 minutes their historic spaceflight but said the show will go on.

The brief flight from Spaceport America in Sierra County, New Mexico, was delayed to 10:30 a.m. ET.

“Overnight weather delayed the start of flight preparations, but we are on track to fly today with a newly scheduled time,” Virgin Galactic tweeted early Sunday.

Branson, who turns 71 this week, and a crew of two pilots and three mission specialists are set to launch from the air aboard the space plane VSS Unity after being carried to high altitude by the aircraft VMS Eve. Unity will then use rocket power to fly to the boundary of space.

Virgin Galactic had planned the flight for later this summer but moved it up after competitor Blue Origin and its founder, Jeff Bezos, announced plans to ride their rocket into space from West Texas on July 20. 

“It’s a beautiful day to go to space,” Branson tweeted Sunday. “We’ve arrived at @Spaceport_NM”

A brief video accompanying the tweet shows the billionaire adventurer riding a bicycle up to the complex and hugging members of the crew.

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Blue Origin, which in recent days has launched a social media campaign disparaging of Virgin Galactic, softened its tone Sunday, tweeting: “Wishing you a great flight tomorrow @virgingalactic!”

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Branson and the crew should experience about four minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to Earth. Following their landing, El Paso R&B singer-songwriter Khalid is scheduled to perform his new song “New Normal” on stage.

Virgin Galactic has plans for two more test flights before commercial service is expected to begin in 2022. The company says more than 600 people already have signed up for flights at an estimated $250,000 per person.

Special guests chat as they wait for Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson's launch to space aboard his own rocket ship near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, on July 11, 2021.

“My mission statement is to turn the dream of space travel into a reality – for my grandchildren, for your grandchildren, for everyone,” Branson tweeted hours before the scheduled flight.

Blue Origin has not begun to sell tickets but has dismissed Virgin Galactic’s flight plans as failing to actually reach space.

“Only 4% of the world recognizes a lower limit of 80 km or 50 miles as the beginning of space,” Blue Origin tweeted Friday. “New Shepard flies above both boundaries. One of the many benefits of flying with Blue Origin.”

Blue Origin launches capsules atop reusable booster rockets, while Virgin Galactic uses an aircraft to get its rocket ship aloft. The space plane is released from the mothership at about 44,000 feet, then fires its rocket motor to streak straight to space. Maximum altitude is about 55 miles, and passengers can expect three to four minutes of weightlessness.

Virgin Galactic’s efforts have come at a price. An earlier version of VSS Unity, the VSS Enterprise, broke apart during a 2014 test flight. One pilot died and another was injured.

Virgin Galactic reached space for the first time in 2018. Successful flights were also recorded in 2019 and most recently in May. The company gained permission from the Federal Aviation Administration last month to start launching customers.

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Bacon reported from Arlington, Va. Contributing: The Associated Press

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