British billionaire Sir Richard Branson is preparing to blast into space on Sunday in a watershed moment for his company, Virgin Galactic, and the fledgling space tourism industry.
If all goes to plan, Sir Richard, 70, will beat rival space entrepreneur and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos into space by a matter of days.
Sir Richard announced he would be part of a team of six on board Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity rocket ship for its next suborbital flight, due to take off on Sunday or soon after. Mr Bezos had earlier revealed he would be flying to space on July 20 on a rocket built by Blue Origin, the space company he founded in 2000 and recently stepped away from Amazon to focus on.
But Sir Richard, who founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 with a dream of making space tourism a reality, has played down suggestions he was racing the Amazon founder to space.
“I know nobody will believe me when I say it, but honestly, there isn't [competition],” he told US broadcaster NBC on Tuesday.
The Virgin Galactic founder insisted there was room for several companies to fill the same space tourism niche as his company, which is built around providing short, suborbital flights using a rocket-powered plane launched by a larger carrier aircraft.
Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft is designed to fly to an altitude of 90 kilometres, giving those on board a chance to experience weightlessness before gliding back down to Earth.
Blue Origin also plans to offer suborbital flights, using a more conventional rocket that takes off and lands vertically.
More than 600 people have reportedly reserved seats on Virgin Galactic trips to space, with tickets initially costing $250,000. The price is expected to increase when Virgin Galactic starts accepting reservations again.
Given the dangerous nature of space flight, Sir Richard, who has a wife and two children and a net worth of around $5.6 billion, has also sought to shrug off the risks associated with the trip.
In 2014, a prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket crashed into the Mojave Desert during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.
Sir Richard said his children were, like him, excited. His wife, on the other hand, was not.
“She’s the last person who would want to do something like this,” he said.
Virgin Galactic plans to live-stream the flight on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
As he unveiled the rocket that will accelerate him and the rest of the crew to more than 5,000 kph over New Mexico, Sir Richard said: “I always envisioned as a kid that a spaceship should look like this.”
“It’s going to be quite a ride,” he said.