If all goes according to plan, billionaire Richard Branson will be heading to space today with the help of his company, Virgin Galactic.
After working to perfect the spacecraft for over two decades, Branson will be the first billionaire to ever travel to space aboard a vehicle he helped fund, beating Amazon founder Jeff Bezos by only nine days.
Here’s a breakdown of the risks Branson and his crew will face:
The possibilities are endless when it comes to potential dangers: The rocket motor could fail to light up. The cabin could lose pressure and threaten the passengers’ lives. And the intense physics involved when hurtling out of — and back into — the Earth’s atmosphere could tear the vehicle apart.
However, the spacecraft Branson will be boarding, otherwise known as the VSS Unity, has had three successful test flights. In May 2021, Virgin Galactic received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to begin flying passengers. It is important to note, however, that the FAA mainly focuses on ensuring the safety of people and property on the ground. Thus, this approval does not necessarily guarantee that the spacecraft is safe.
In the years before the FAA’s approval, multiple test flights ran amuck, including one in 2014 that left a pilot dead and another seriously injured. In 2019, a seal on the space plane’s wing had come undone during a test flight, and in a December 2020 test flight, VSS Unity’s onboard rocket motor computer lost connection.
Markus Guerster, an aerospace industry professional who co-authored a 2018 paper on the risks of suborbital space tourism, told us that there is never a perfect time for a company to deem its spacecraft safe enough to fly members of the public.
“It’s kind of a difficult decision to make — if you’re ready, or if you’re not ready, because there is some risk remaining. But if you don’t try it, you’re also not going to learn,” Guerster said. “I think the first group of people who will fly on this acknowledge the risk. There are plenty people out there who climb Mount Everest.”
From the time the mothership leaves the ground to the time the spacecraft lands back down on it, Branson’s trip should only take roughly an hour. Unlike traditional space travel where astronauts circle the Earth and float in space for days, Virgin Galactic’s flights are brief, up-and-down trips. But the spacecraft will go more than 50 miles above Earth, which the US government considers to mark the boundary of outer space.
Read more about the dangers of Branson’s flight here.