American space tourism company Virgin Galactic will fly its billionaire founder Richard Branson on its next test flight on July 11, the company said.
Mr Branson, who will be one of the six people on board, is aiming to beat fellow billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, who is expected to fly in his own space tourism rocket on July 20.
“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us. After more than 16 years of research, engineering and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry, which is set to open space to humankind and change the world for good,” Mr Branson said.
Dubbed Unity 22, the mission will mark the company’s first fully crewed test flight of the VSS Unity spaceplane. It will carry two pilots and four mission specialists, including Mr Branson.
Mr Branson will evaluate the private astronaut experience and will undergo the same training, preparation and flight as Virgin Galactic’s future astronauts. The company will use his observations from his flight training and spaceflight experience to enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers.
“It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all … it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality … I am honoured to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake,” said Mr Branson.
Following this flight, and in line with normal procedures, the team will complete inspections of the vehicles and an extensive data review, which will decide the next steps in the test flight programme.
Two additional test flights are planned before the company expects to start commercial service in 2022, Virgin Galactic said.
The company has nearly 600 reservations for paying customers on future space flights, with each ticket going for around $250,000, according to The Verge.
“Our next flight is a testament to the dedication and technical brilliance of our entire team,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said.
“Tapping into Sir Richard’s expertise and long history of creating amazing customer experiences will be invaluable as we work to open the wonder of space travel and create awe-inspiring journeys for our customers,” he added.
For the first time, Virgin Galactic will share a global livestream of the spaceflight. Last month, it received regulatory approval to fly customers into space, moving the budding industry one step closer to reality.