Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Space Plane Flight: How to Watch

Still, the forces felt by the passengers on the way down will be greater than on the way up, reaching six times the force of gravity.

Once the plane is back in the atmosphere, the tail booms rotate back down, and the plane will glide to a landing. The whole flight may take less than two hours.

The pilots are David Mackay and Michael Masucci.

In addition to Mr. Branson, three Virgin Galactic employees will evaluate how the experience will be for future paying customers. They are Beth Moses, the chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations. Ms. Bandla will also conduct a science experiment provided by the University of Florida.

The Virgin Galactic design already has an imperfect safety record. The company’s first space plane, the V.S.S. Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014 when the co-pilot moved a lever too early during the flight, allowing the tail booms to rotate when they should have remained rigid. The Enterprise broke apart, and the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed. The pilot, Peter Siebold, survived after parachuting out of the plane.

The controls were redesigned so that the tail booms cannot be unlocked prematurely.

In 2019, Virgin Galactic came close to another catastrophe when a new metal thermal protection film was improperly installed, covering up holes that allow air trapped inside a horizontal stabilizer — the small horizontal wing on the tail of a plane — to flow out as the craft rises into the rarefied layers of the atmosphere. Instead, the pressure of the trapped air ruptured a seal along one of the stabilizers.

The mishap was revealed earlier this year in the book “Test Gods” by Nicholas Schmidle, a staff writer at The New Yorker. The book quotes Todd Ericson, then the vice president for safety and testing at Virgin Galactic, saying, “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and kill three people.”

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