Sir Richard Branson Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees preparing for the trip, has touted the flight as a harbinger of a new era of space tourism, and the company he founded is set to begin commercial operations next year.
Sharing a picture with fellow billionaire and space travel entrepreneur Elon Musk on Twitter this morning, Branson said: ‘A great day ahead. Great to start the morning with a friend. I feel good, excited, ready. ‘
Elon Musk, who yesterday tweeted his good wishes to Branson, traveled to New Mexico to watch the launch this afternoon.
Branson will pose for photographs with the other five passengers before the trip that Branson told the Sunday Times was his ‘Star Trek moment’ after being inspired by the franchise as a child, even deliberately designing his uniforms to look like the ones used. In the series.
The 70-year-old will fly to the edge of space, nine days before his’ his rival ‘Jeff Bezos, in a ship built by his own company after declaring that it is’ time to turn my dream into reality’.
Branson shared a photo this morning with Elon Musk and a tweet that read: ‘Big day ahead. Great to start the morning with a friend. I feel good, excited, ready. ‘
He will be the second oldest person to travel to space after 77-year-old John Glenn in 1998.
The billionaire businessman told the Times that the sight alone will be worth the billion pounds he has spent on the project, adding: ‘I think it’s one of the reasons people want to become an astronaut. They want to look back at this beautiful Earth.
“Every astronaut I have ever met has returned determined that they will spend the rest of their lives working harder to protect the planet we live on.”
Branson, who has been photographed arriving at the facility by bike this morning, will ride on VSS Unity, launching from the VMS Eve mothership on July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 3.30 p.m. (10:30 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Launch preparations have been pushed back by 90 minutes due to weather overnight at Spaceport America which has delayed flight preparations earlier today.
He will be joined by chief pilot David Mackay, a Scottish-born test pilot for the Royal Air Force who went on to fly for Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, and chief flight instructor Michael Masucci.
Also onboard will be chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, a former NASA engineer, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, a company vice president. The six will grab a lift from mothership pilots C.J. Sturckow, a former NASA astronaut, and Kelly Latimer.
A discount travel service it is not. But demand is apparently strong, with several hundred wealthy would-be citizen astronauts already having booked reservations, priced at around £180,000 per ticket.
Sir Richard, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are all part of what is being dubbed the ‘NewSpace’ set.
The group have all said that they were inspired by the first moon landing in 1969, when the US beat the Soviet Union in the space race, and had previously said how much it would mean for each to win the ‘new space race’.
Amazon founder Bezos had looked set to be the first of the three to fly to space – having announced plans to launch aboard his space company Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft on July 20.
But Branson later revealed his suborbital flight was planned nine days before Bezos.
Although SpaceX and Tesla founder Musk has said he wants to go into space, and even ‘die on Mars’, he has not said when he might blast into orbit.
SpaceX appears to be leading the way in the broader billionaire space race with numerous launches carrying NASA equipment to the ISS and partnerships to send tourists to space by 2021.
Yesterday, he had tweeted a countdown to the lift-off before fellow entrepreneur Musk, 50, commented: ‘Will see you there to wish you the best.’
Sir Richard soon posted a light-hearted reply that read: ‘Thanks for being so typically supportive and such a good friend, Elon. Great to be opening up space for all – safe travels and see you at Spaceport America!’
The exchange comes as Branson revealed how it had been his dream to go to space ever since seeing the moon landing as a youngster before adding that he now wanted to inspire a new generation.
In the clip posted online earlier today he explained: ‘The moon landing was a catalytic moment for me. I remember my dad taking me outside onto the village green and we just looked up at the moon.
‘I really did think that myself and many other young people would one day be able to go into space. I waited and I waited for that opportunity and it never came but it got me thinking.
‘I went to the registry office and I registered the name Virgin Galactic Airways.’
Sir Richard’s extraordinary trip is one week before his 71st birthday, and he will be joined by five others on what has been dubbed the Unit 22 test flight – as it is the 22nd test flight for the spaceplane.
The British billionaire will launch on the first of the three test flights carrying a full complement of ‘astronauts’ in the cabin, before they begin flying the first of 600 ‘future astronaut’ ticket holders in 2022.
Branson is Astronaut 001 and will travel with Chief Astronaut Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003) and VP of Government Affairs Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004) in the cabin.
The London-born founder of the Virgin Group, who turns 71 in a week, wasn’t supposed to fly until later this summer. But he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos announced plans to ride his own rocket into space from West Texas on July 20.
Virgin Galactic doesn’t expect to start flying customers before next year. Blue Origin has yet to open ticket sales or even announce prices, but late last week boasted via Twitter that it would take clients higher and offer bigger windows.
Unlike Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which launch capsules atop reusable booster rockets, Virgin Galactic uses a twin-fuselage aircraft to get its rocket ship aloft. The space plane is released from the mothership about 44,000 feet (13,400 meters) up, then fires its rocket motor to streak straight to space. Maximum altitude is roughly 55 miles (70 kilometers), with three to four minutes of weightlessness provided.
The rocket plane – which requires two pilots – glides to a runway landing at its Spaceport America base.
Virgin Galactic reached space for the first time in 2018, repeating the feat in 2019 and again this past May, each time with a minimal crew. It received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration last month to start launching customers.
It comes after Sir Richard’s daughter Holly says she ‘hasn’t left dad’s side’ for days as she eagerly anticipates his blast off into space aboard Sunday’s historic Virgin Galactic flight.
The 39-year-old, an executive at Virgin, reflected on her father’s love of exploration in a tweet posted one day before lift-off.
She wrote: ‘I haven’t left Dad’s side the last few days! It’s bringing back so many memories of his ballooning adventures when I would follow him around like a puppy for weeks before a trip! Now I’m doing it all over again, and Etta is doing the same!’
Holly is the eldest child of Richard Branson and his wife Joan. The University College London graduate worked as a junior doctor for Britain’s National Health Service before joining the Virgin Group in 2008.
Meanwhile, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos will launch to the edge of space on the New Shepherd rocket on July 20 – the 52nd anniversary of the first moon landing.
Branson denied that he and Bezos were in a ‘battle of the billionaire space founders’ to see who would go up first, despite changing from the second to the first VSS Unity test flight in order to go up before Bezos.
‘I just wish him and people going up with him all the very best,’ he said.
He added that he ‘looks forward to talking to him about his ride when he comes back.’
Joining the Virgin Galactic staff filling the cabin, pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci will fly VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer will fly VMS Eve.
Once it reaches 50,000 feet the carrier plane releases Unity, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.
Once released Unity’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic.
The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth’s surface.
‘I’ve always been a dreamer. My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars,’ said Branson.
There are dozens of ‘founder astronauts’ who purchased a ticket to travel to space in the first years after the firm was formed who will be at the launch on Sunday.
Among them is Namira Salim, who hopes to launch early next year. She has been waiting 15 years to launch, and become the first person from Pakistan in space.
Salim has been an active ambassador for space as the new frontier for peace, and says she can’t wait to watch the launch on Sunday, and then go up herself.
Branson said he was going into space to ‘test the customer experience’ from start to finish, to ensure that those paying to go up get the best possible experience.
It will be the fourth crewed flight of VSS Unity and only the second to include passengers in the cabin. The first saw Beth Moses go up in February 2019.