Can Virgin Galactic Beat SpaceX in Their Race to Crewed Spaceflight?

Richard Branson is aiming to get humans into space even earlier than fellow entrepreneur Elon Musk. The founder of Virgin Galactic said Friday that he’s “pretty confident” he’ll be able to launch astronauts into space before December 25. But even if he is able to put the plan into fruition, the end result still won’t be exactly what you’ve come to expect from SpaceX’s previous uncrewed launches.

Branson’s space tourism company eventually plans on sending customers into orbit aboard its SpaceShipTwo, also known as VSS Unity, a spaceplane where a seat costs you $250,000. But before that happens, astronauts will conduct a test flight to ensure it’s ready for the public before the year is up.

“Safety’s all that matters if you’re putting people into space. So none of us will race to be the first,” Branson told CNN Business’ Rachel Crane. “[But] Virgin Galactic will be the first.”

The spaceplane will be launched 46,000 in the sky using the WhiteKnightTwo mothership. Once that altitude is achieved, the VSS Unity will detach from the launcher and begin to fly on its own.

Virgin Galactic vss unity
The VSS Unity on a runway.

How VSS Unity Will Get to Space

VSS Unity is capable of carrying eight people in total, two pilots and six passengers. It can travel at a maximum speed of 2,300 mph, roughly three times the speed of sound.

If Virgin Galactic manages to pull this timeline off, it would have SpaceX beat by roughly six months. Musk’s aerospace company is slated to launch two NASA astronauts into space aboard its Crew Dragon capsule in June 2019. For SpaceX to hit that goal, the spaceship’s January 7 uncrewed test launch will have to go off without a hitch.

Until then, all eyes will be on the rocket-propelled VSS Unity in December. The suborbital spaceplane is the successor of Virginia Galactic’s VSS Enterprise that suffered a catastrophic failure mid-flight in 2014. This killed one of the two co-pilots aboard and severely injured the other.

At the time, the crash was attributed to the VSS Unity’s “feathering reentry system” deploying too early, causing an in-flight breakup. Virgin Galactic issued a press release in April stating that it had implemented a new safety mechanism to keep that from happening again.

If all goes according to plan, Branson’s space tourism firm could make history.

Media via Virgin Galactic