The billionaire will have a very precise mission during his trip: to test and evaluate the experience that his future clients will have.
He always dreamed of this, and to make it happen he founded his own company 17 years ago: billionaire Richard Branson is about to fly into space this Sunday from New Mexico, in the United States, to spend a few minutes in weightlessness aboard a ship of Virgin Galactic.
This Briton seeks to propel the fledgling space tourism industry, but also to surpass his competitor, the American Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, snatching the title of the first billionaire to cross the space border thanks to the ship of a company that he founded.
«A great day ahead. It’s great to start the morning with a friend, ”Branson tweeted two hours before takeoff, along with a photo of him and SpaceX chief Elon Musk posing barefoot in a kitchen. Musk, a great rival of Bezos, had indicated on Saturday that he would be present at the event.
“I feel good, excited and prepared,” added Branson, who will have a very precise mission during his trip: to test and evaluate the experience that his future clients will have.
The takeoff, which was scheduled for 0700 local (1300 GMT), had to be rescheduled an hour and a half later due to weather conditions, remaining for 08:30 local (14:30 GMT), the company announced early Sunday. The flight will be streamed live via the Virgin Galactic website.
Other flights … by rocket
Other billionaires have already been in space in the 2000s, but aboard Russian rockets. On this occasion, the journey will not start with a rocket, but with a huge plane that will transport the spacecraft. Once it has taken off from a traditional runway, the plane, driven by two pilots, will rise for about an hour.
Attached to the underside of the plane will be the VSS Unity spacecraft – a copy of the SpaceShipTwo model – with two other pilots and four passengers on board: Richard Branson and three employees of his company.
At an altitude of about 15 kilometers, the spacecraft – the size of a private jet – will break loose and fire its engine for a supersonic ascent to a height of more than 80 kilometers, the limit set in the United States for the space frontier.
Once the engine is switched off, passengers will be able to detach themselves from their seats and float for a few minutes in weightlessness, admiring the curvature of the Earth from one of the 12 cabin windows. After reaching a peak altitude of about 90 km, the spacecraft will glide down.
A dream since childhood
The eccentric 70-year-old billionaire, founder of the Virgin group – whose activities range from an airline to sports – has long cultivated an impetuous image, with a number of sporting exploits. When I was a child, I wanted to go into space. As that did not seem likely to my generation, I registered the name Virgin Galactic, with the idea of creating a company that would make it possible, “wrote Richard Branson a few days ago.
A goal that almost failed in 2014: the in-flight accident of a Virgin Galactic spacecraft caused the death of a pilot, considerably delaying the program. Since then, VSS Unity has already arrived in space three times, in 2018 and 2019, with pilots on board and even a passenger in 2019.
After Sunday, Virgin Galactic plans two more test flights, then begins regular commercial operations in early 2022. And, in the long term, it aims to make 400 flights a year from Spaceport America. Some 600 trips have already been sold to people from 60 different countries, including Hollywood celebrities, for between $ 200,000 and $ 250,000.
Although Branson keeps repeating that “space belongs to everyone,” adventure is still within the reach of a privileged few. “When I return (from space), I will announce something very exciting so that more people can become astronauts,” he promised.
Competition in the space tourism sector, whose imminent start has been announced for years, accelerated this month: the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, also plans to take to the skies on July 20 with his own rocket, christened New Shepard and developed by his company Blue Origin.
The firm on Friday wielded its merits against those of Virgin Galactic: the New Shepard climbs to more than 100 km in height, thus surpassing what is known as the Karman line, which marks the beginning of the space according to the international convention. “None of our astronauts will have an asterisk next to their name,” scoffed Blue Origin.