Richard Branson’s daughter Holly says she’s been with her father non-stop

Richard Branson’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 Branson, a 39-year-old executive at Virgin, reflected on her father's love of exploration in a tweet posted one day before lift-off

Holly Branson, a 39-year-old executive at Virgin, reflected on her father's love of exploration in a tweet posted one day before lift-off

Holly Branson, a 39-year-old executive at Virgin, reflected on her father’s love of exploration in a tweet posted one day before lift-off

Holly is the eldest child of Richard Branson and his wife Joan. The University College London graduate worked as a junior doctor in Britain’s NHS before joining the Virgin Group in 2008. 

Sir Richard will fly to the edge of space on a spaceplane built by his own company, declaring it is ‘time to turn my dream into reality,’ as he takes to the stars nine days before rival Jeff Bezos.

He will travel on VSS Unity, which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The 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.

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity, piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, is released from its mothership, VMS Eve, on the way to its first spaceflight after launch from Spaceport America, New Mexico in May

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity, piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, is released from its mothership, VMS Eve, on the way to its first spaceflight after launch from Spaceport America, New Mexico in May

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, is released from its mothership, VMS Eve, on the way to its first spaceflight after launch from Spaceport America, New Mexico in May

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. 

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, adding he ‘looks forward to talking to him about his ride when he comes back.’  

Sir Richard moved his trip to space to an earlier test flight after Jeff Bezos announced he was going up, but claims no rivalry, saying 'we both wished each other well'

Sir Richard moved his trip to space to an earlier test flight after Jeff Bezos announced he was going up, but claims no rivalry, saying 'we both wished each other well'

Sir Richard moved his trip to space to an earlier test flight after Jeff Bezos announced he was going up, but claims no rivalry, saying ‘we both wished each other well’

He will travel to space on VSS Unity on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico

He will travel to space on VSS Unity on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico

He will travel to space on VSS Unity on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico

He will travel on VSS Unity, which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unity is seen here attached to Eve

He will travel on VSS Unity, which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unity is seen here attached to Eve

He will travel on VSS Unity, which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unity is seen here attached to Eve

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.

THE BILLIONAIRE SPACE RACE 

Dubbed the ‘NewSpace’ set, Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk all say they were inspired by the first moon landing in 1969, when the US beat the Soviet Union in the space race, and there is no doubt how much it would mean to each of them 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.  

However, Branson has now announced he’s planning to make a suborbital flight nine days before Bezos and his brother.

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.  

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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.

The news that Branson would go up on this flight came soon after the FCC granted Virgin Galactic a change to their operator licence that allowed them to take paying travellers up to the edge of space.

‘After a successful flight in late May and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for a Full Commercial Launch Licence, the pathway towards commercial launch is clear,’ Branson said. 

A photo shows the release of VSS Unity from VMS Eve and ignition of rocket motor over Spaceport America, New Mexico

A photo shows the release of VSS Unity from VMS Eve and ignition of rocket motor over Spaceport America, New Mexico

A photo shows the release of VSS Unity from VMS Eve and ignition of rocket motor over Spaceport America, New Mexico

The crew will test all aspects of the astronaut experience, including the view of the Earth from the windows, as seen here during a flight in December 2018

The crew will test all aspects of the astronaut experience, including the view of the Earth from the windows, as seen here during a flight in December 2018

The crew will test all aspects of the astronaut experience, including the view of the Earth from the windows, as seen here during a flight in December 2018

Chief Astronaut Beth Moses tested the Virgin Galactic cabin in the first flight last year with someone other than the pilots on board, she will join Sir Richard for his flight on Sunday

Chief Astronaut Beth Moses tested the Virgin Galactic cabin in the first flight last year with someone other than the pilots on board, she will join Sir Richard for his flight on Sunday

Chief Astronaut Beth Moses tested the Virgin Galactic cabin in the first flight last year with someone other than the pilots on board, she will join Sir Richard for his flight on Sunday 

‘Virgin Galactic still has tests to come, and this is the time for me to assess the astronaut experience.

‘When we return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people the chance to become an astronaut. Because space belongs to us all. So watch this space,’ said Branson in a blog post before the launch. 

This will be the first of three final flights required to test all aspects of the cabin and passenger experience, with Branson saying he got ‘truly excited’ when the final safety checks cam through and he was asked if he wanted to go into space

THE UNITY 22 CREW 

Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic

Moses will serve as cabin lead and test director in space, overseeing the safe and efficient execution of the test flight objectives 

Colin Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer at Virgin Galactic 

Bennett will evaluate cabin equipment, procedures, and experience during both the boost phase and in the weightless environment 

Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic 

Bandla will be evaluating the human-tended research experience, using an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes that will be activated at various points in the flight profile. 

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic 

Branson will evaluate the private astronaut experience and will undergo the same training, preparation and flight as Virgin Galactic’s future astronauts. 

Virgin Galactic will use his observations from his flight training and spaceflight experience to enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers. 

The pilots 

The pilots for this mission are Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci flying VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer flying VMS Eve. 

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‘I’ve been looking forward to this for 17 years,’ Branson said from Spaceport America near the remote town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

He said pre-flight preparations only add to the excitement ahead of Sunday’s scheduled launch, which will be taking place one week before his 71st birthday. ‘Every bit about it is a pinch-me moment,’ he added.

For the first flight that included someone in the cabin, Chief Astronaut Beth Moses went up into space alone, only accompanied by the two pilots in the cockpit. 

This will be the first flight to carry a full complement of space travellers, consisting of Branson, two pilots and three mission specialists, who are all members of the Virgin Galactic management team.

Branson has been styled as Astronaut 001 for the first full-cabin flight, although it isn’t clear whether this numbering scheme will continue after paying passengers start going into space.

He will travel with Virgin Galactic Chief Astronaut Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003) and Vice President of Government Affairs Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004). They will fly along with pilots David Mackay, Michael Masucci up front of the VSS Unity spaceship. 

‘We are at the vanguard of a new industry determined to pioneer twenty-first century spacecraft, which will open space to everybody — and change the world for good,’ Branson declared. 

In a blog post on the run up to the flight, Branson wrote: ‘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. 

‘As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honoured to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.’

Virgin Galactic said the aim of the upcoming flight will be to evaluate the commercial customer cabin to test the environment, seat comfort, weightless experience and view of the Earth from space.

This is ‘all to ensure every moment of the astronaut’s journey maximises the wonder and awe created by space travel,’ the firm wrote.

They are also demonstrating the conditions for conducting human-tended research experiments, a new area of business opened up for the space firm.

Virgin Galactic´s Richard Branson is set to beat Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos being the first to blast off into space on their July 11 flight. Branson is pictured in 2019

Virgin Galactic´s Richard Branson is set to beat Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos being the first to blast off into space on their July 11 flight. Branson is pictured in 2019

Virgin Galactic´s Richard Branson is set to beat Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos being the first to blast off into space on their July 11 flight. Branson is pictured in 2019

Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic¿s chief astronaut instructor, who flew to space on the company¿s second spaceflight mission will be on board

Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic¿s chief astronaut instructor, who flew to space on the company¿s second spaceflight mission will be on board

Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, who flew to space on the company’s second spaceflight mission will be on board

Colin Bennett, the company¿s lead operations engineer, will also join the flight

Colin Bennett, the company¿s lead operations engineer, will also join the flight

Colin Bennett, the company’s lead operations engineer, will also join the flight

Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic¿s vice president of government affairs and research operations

Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic¿s vice president of government affairs and research operations

Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research operations

They have already sent a payload up for NASA and next year will send Kellie Gerardi, a researcher for the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), up on VSS Unity to monitor experiments. 

The crew will also work to confirm the training program at Spaceport America supports the spaceflight experience, before customers go up.

TIMELINE: VSS UNITY UPCOMING LAUNCHES 

July 11, 2021: Sir Richard Branson travels to the edge of space in the VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

It will fly to a height of 55 miles (89km) and then glide back down to Earth.

He will be joined by three mission specialists testing the customer experience. 

Summer 2021: A second test flight is due to take place with a full load to test the passenger cabin.

It is set to include the pilots plus four as yet unnamed Virgin Galactic employees.  

Late 2021: First revenue generation flight with the Italian Air Force to test passenger and payload.

This flight will take both astronauts and scientific equipment to the edge of space on VSS Unity. 

Early 2022: The start of full commercial flights from Spaceport America.

The dozens of Future Astronauts, who paid to fly to the edge of space, will begin earning their astronaut wings. 

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Unlike previous test flights, where footage was shared after the event, this flight will be streamed live.

‘Audiences around the world are invited to participate virtually in the Unity 22 test flight and see first-hand the extraordinary experience Virgin Galactic is creating for future astronauts,’ the firm wrote.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are competing head-to-head in the emerging space tourism business.

The first of the two will be directly competing to take paying passengers to the edge of space in a sub-orbital flight, allowing them to earn their astronaut wings.

They will also be competing to send science payloads and researchers up so they can test their experiments while in a low gravity environment. 

Branson denied he and Bezos were in a contest to see who would go up first.

‘I just wish him and people going up with him all the very best. I look forward to talking to him about his ride when he comes back,’ Branson said of Bezos. ‘I spoke to him two or three weeks ago, and we both wished each other well.’

Success for both ventures is considered key to fostering a burgeoning industry that aims to eventually make space tourism mainstream. 

Virgin has said two additional test flights of its vehicle after the one on July 11 are planned before the company begins commercial service in 2022. 

This will include another full cabin experience test, as well as a flight taking up a crew from the Italian airforce. 

Branson said he anticipates offering paid flights on a ‘regular basis’ next year, which will come as a relief for the 600 ‘future astronaut’ ticket holders who have waited over a decade for the opportunity to go into space. 

Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) touches down after flying freely for the first time after being released from Virgin Mothership Eve (VMS Eve) on 3rd, December 2016 in the Mojave Desert

Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) touches down after flying freely for the first time after being released from Virgin Mothership Eve (VMS Eve) on 3rd, December 2016 in the Mojave Desert

Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) touches down after flying freely for the first time after being released from Virgin Mothership Eve (VMS Eve) on 3rd, December 2016 in the Mojave Desert

Virgin Galactic's First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018. In the past two and a half years the spaceliner has gone from test flights with passengers, to taking founder Sir Richard Branson to the edge of space

Virgin Galactic's First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018. In the past two and a half years the spaceliner has gone from test flights with passengers, to taking founder Sir Richard Branson to the edge of space

Virgin Galactic’s First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018. In the past two and a half years the spaceliner has gone from test flights with passengers, to taking founder Sir Richard Branson to the edge of space

Salim, one of the earliest future astronaut ticket holders, wished Sir Richard Branson good luck. She said the firm was helping to fulfil her childhood dream of going into space, first formed as a little girl from Pakistan. 

‘I wish you all the very best in skyrocketing as the first private spaceline in the world. Richard you have delivered your promise and you are our ace of space,’ she said. 

Branson said he was confident there was plenty of room in the market for his venture and Bezos’ company to compete.

‘Neither of us are going to be able to build enough spaceships to satisfy the demand,’ Branson said. 

Michael Colglazier, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Galactic, said the 22nd flight test for VSS Unity is a ‘testament to the dedication and technical brilliance of our entire team’.

‘I’d like to extend a special thank you to our pilots and mission specialists, each of whom will be performing important work,’ he added.  

‘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.’

Clash of two planet-sized egos: Tomorrow Richard Branson is set to soar into the heavens – just a week before Jeff Bezos does the same. So are they boldly going for the sake of mankind… or is the race to space astronomical hubris, asks GUY ADAMS

The latest space race is a rocket-fuelled clash between two egos so enormous that, as the old saying goes, you can probably see them from the Moon.

Representing Great Britain, by way of the Caribbean tax haven where he officially resides, is bearded serial entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson. While flying the stars and stripes is Jeff Bezos, the tech tycoon who in 1994 started an online book retailer in his garage, decided to call it Amazon, and is now the wealthiest person in history.

The buccaneering duo are in the final stages of an irresistible space race. In the coming days, one of them hopes to become the first civilian to travel into the great beyond, using a homemade aircraft.

Back in May, Bezos unveiled grandiose plans to lift off aboard New Shepard, a phallic rocket built by his firm Blue Origin, on July 20: the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing.

‘To see Earth from space . . . changes your relationship with humanity,’ claims Bezos modestly.

Then Branson announced last week that he’s going to zip into a blue jumpsuit and clamber aboard Virgin Galactic ship VSS Unity in New Mexico tomorrow morning (at 2pm UK time), a full nine days before Bezos’s scheduled launch.

But he denies this is an attempt to upstage his much richer American rival. ‘It’s honestly not a race,’ Branson said earlier this week. ‘If it’s a race, it’s a race to produce wonderful spaceships that can make many more people be able to access space. And I think that’s both of our aims. I spoke to him two or three weeks ago, and we both wished each other well.’

So which billionaire rocket man will win this high-stakes duel? How will they do it? And what are the chances of it ending in disaster?

SPACE BUCCANEERS

According to his Twitter handle, Branson would like to be known as a ‘tie-loathing adventurer, philanthropist and troublemaker who believes in turning ideas into reality’.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that he’s a man with a gift for self-promotion who owes a good chunk of his £3.5billion personal fortune to luck and clever tax lawyers.

Educated at Stowe, the 70-year-old father-of-two started off in record stores and labels in the 1970s, before branching into airlines, rail franchises, gyms, cruise liners, hotels and consumer brands.

Endlessly claiming the moral high ground, he managed to keep a straight face last year when requesting a Covid bailout for his kerosene-burning airline by arguing that ‘creating positive social and environmental impact has always been at the heart of this brand’.

On a similar note, he’s recently been telling interviewers that Virgin Galactic’s raison d’etre isn’t to make money, but to ‘be an inspiration to a whole generation of kids to do something incredible’.

Bezos, whose net worth is $210 billion (£152 billion), plays a similar tune, claiming that his company’s ultimate goal is to change humanity by supporting ‘millions of people… living and working in space’.

To a degree, the 57-year-old already has changed humanity via Amazon, founded with then-wife Mackenzie Scott, the mother of their four children. When they split in 2019, after U.S. tabloids learned he was conducting an affair with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez, the divorce cost $38 billion.

Much like Branson — who was once prosecuted for tax evasion early in his career — Bezos is endlessly criticised for his firm’s tax affairs. He’s also gained notoriety for Amazon’s robust treatment of staff. One pundit recently observed that, since it’s impossible to take a ‘bathroom break’ during a rocket launch, the bombastic tycoon will soon get to experience what it’s like to work in one of his warehouses.

Back in May, Bezos unveiled grandiose plans to lift off aboard New Shepard, a phallic rocket built by his firm Blue Origin, on July 20: the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing

Back in May, Bezos unveiled grandiose plans to lift off aboard New Shepard, a phallic rocket built by his firm Blue Origin, on July 20: the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing

Back in May, Bezos unveiled grandiose plans to lift off aboard New Shepard, a phallic rocket built by his firm Blue Origin, on July 20: the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing

11-MINUTE THRILL

The difference between the two spaceships is best understood by likening one to a shuttle, while the other is an old-fashioned rocket.

Branson’s VSS Unity sits in the former category: it first gets carried to an altitude of 50,000ft aboard a mothership. Then it fires up its rocket engines, points vertically upwards, and accelerates to roughly 2,300 miles per hour.

At an altitude of 55 miles, the two pilots cut off the engines and allow it to drift. Up to six passengers will then feel weightless for four or five minutes, and be able to see the Earth curving below them through 17 porthole-style windows. 

As gravity begins to pull VSS Unity back to terra firma, the pilots rotate its wings and tail fins upwards to slow its descent. By the time the vehicle has returned to 50,000ft, they will be back in their original position, allowing the pilots to land it on a runway. The trip will take around 90 minutes.

The Bezos spaceship, New Shepard, doesn’t need a pilot. It instead flies autonomously and consists of two conjoined parts: a rocket which powers everything, and a pressurised capsule containing up to six passengers.

After blasting around 66 miles vertically upwards, the engine cuts. The parts then separate and fall back to Earth.

The observation capsule has six windows and was named after Alan Shepard — the first American in space. Its passengers will at this point be able to unbuckle and float around the capsule weightlessly for roughly three minutes.

The pod will then fall, at rapidly increasing speeds, before passengers (hopefully!) feel a thump as three parachutes deploy. With any luck, it will then land in the Texas desert, where a recovery crew will be waiting. The whole thing will be over in just 11 minutes.

Then Branson announced last week that he's going to zip into a blue jumpsuit and clamber aboard Virgin Galactic ship VSS Unity in New Mexico tomorrow morning, a full nine days before Bezos's scheduled launch

Then Branson announced last week that he's going to zip into a blue jumpsuit and clamber aboard Virgin Galactic ship VSS Unity in New Mexico tomorrow morning, a full nine days before Bezos's scheduled launch

Then Branson announced last week that he’s going to zip into a blue jumpsuit and clamber aboard Virgin Galactic ship VSS Unity in New Mexico tomorrow morning, a full nine days before Bezos’s scheduled launch

FUNKY SHIPMATES

If things had gone according to plan, Sir Richard would have been joined on Virgin Galactic’s maiden voyage by his sprightly mother Eve. That was what he promised back in 2006, when she was in her 80s and he claimed to be a mere year or two from achieving lift-off. Sadly, Branson’s couple of years turned into 15, and his mother passed away in January, at the age of 96. So she has given her name to VSS Unity’s mothership and he will instead by accompanied by three senior Virgin Galactic executives plus pilot Michael Masucci and his British co-pilot Dave Mackay, a former RAF airman.

The team was unveiled this week in a video that saw Branson stride to the camera and introduce himself as ‘Astronaut 001’ whose role on the ‘mission’ will be ‘evaluating customer space flight experience’.

Bezos, for his part, is to be joined by his brother Mark and a so-far-anonymous bidder who pledged to pay $28 million (£20.3million) in an online charity auction.

The final passenger will be Wally Funk, a former NASA employee and one of the so-called ‘Mercury 13’ group of women who completed astronaut training in the 1960s.

At 82, the plucky Mrs Funk will become the oldest person ever to fly into space. In an interview posted to Instagram by Bezos, she promised: ‘I’ll love every second of it. Woo-hoo! Ha-ha! I can hardly wait!’

But Sir Richard (right) denies this is an attempt to upstage his much richer American rival (left). 'It's honestly not a race,' he said earlier this week

But Sir Richard (right) denies this is an attempt to upstage his much richer American rival (left). 'It's honestly not a race,' he said earlier this week

But Sir Richard (right) denies this is an attempt to upstage his much richer American rival (left). ‘It’s honestly not a race,’ he said earlier this week

A-LIST ASTRONAUTS

These aren’t just empty PR stunts. Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic were founded with the intention of creating a new leisure industry: space tourism. Should everything go according to plan, Branson says he’ll begin taking paying punters on flights ‘early next year’. He claims to have roughly 700 signed up.

Their ranks are said to include everyone from Hollywood stars Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga and Ashton Kutcher to singer Justin Bieber, Dallas actress Victoria Principal and the British advertising tycoon Trevor Beattie.

Each will pay $250,000 (£181,000) for the pleasure.

In time, Virgin Galactic hopes to raise prices, with Branson telling a recent interviewer: ‘I think we’re going to be deluged with people wanting to go to space.’

Whether the business can ever turn a profit is, however, anyone’s guess: it currently employs an astonishing 800 engineers and has been shelling out cash for 17 long years. In 2020, it reported an operating loss of $275 million (£199 million) and in 2019 the figure was $213 million (£155 million).

Future prospects may also hinge on how much Bezos decides to charge. According to Reuters, he’s planning to undercut Branson by charging around $200,000 (£145,000) per flight.

FATAL SETBACKS

Virgin Galactic’s efforts to send its rocket into orbit have led to the accidental deaths of four people.

Three engineers died in 2007 when a ground test ended in an explosion at its base in California’s Mojave desert.

In a breach of health and safety protocol, they’d chosen not to watch an experiment from behind a purpose-built large earth barrier 400 yards away, but were instead standing next to a chain link fence, a stone’s throw from the test site.

In 2014, the first version of his spaceship, VSS Enterprise, broke apart mid-flight killing pilot Michael Alsbury.

It later emerged that he’d deployed the ‘feathering’ system by which the wings rotate to slow the vehicle’s descent prematurely, causing it to rip apart in mid-air.

Branson’s mis-steps have involved expectation management: when he founded the firm in 2004, he gave endless bullish interviews promising that regular flights would be under way in a few short years. Instead, the public has now been waiting for almost two decades.

Bezos, who founded Blue Origin around the same time, and was not touting for customers, by contrast chose to keep his trap shut. That hasn’t stopped critics attacking him, though. A petition, ‘Don’t let Jeff Bezos return to Earth’, currently boasts 153,000 signatures.

UNHAPPY LANDINGS

Space travel is inherently risky, and around one per cent of all manned space flights have ended in tragic accidents.

Rockets can fail, or explode, cabins lose pressure and the physical forces caused by hurtling through the sky at thousands of miles per hour may tear a vehicle apart. Experts are therefore divided as to the wisdom of allowing paying punters to take sub-orbital flights.

‘To use the phrase ‘space tourism’ is very misleading. It’s not going to be safe,’ says Professor Lord Martin Rees, Cambridge academic and the UK’s Astronomer Royal. ‘It will always be dangerous so will attract the sort of people who like to go hang-gliding or round-the-world ballooning.’

According to Don Pollacco, of the astrophysics research group at Warwick University’s Department of Physics, a single disaster could destroy the industry before it has even started.

‘The thing about these vehicles is that they involve a lot of moving forces and energy, and while on paper a design might look perfect, in reality, bad things happen. Look at the NASA shuttle programme.

‘Now just imagine when there’s an accident, which will eventually happen to one of these companies. I can’t see people queueing up in droves to fly with them after that.’

Martin Barstow, professor of Astrophysics and Space Science at the University of Leicester, is more bullish, saying that on paper the Bezos mode of transport is likely to be safer than Branson’s.

‘I would say the capsule approach is more tried and tested and likely to have a higher degree of reliability. Russians use it. Apollo does it.

‘The shuttle concept was developed to be cheaper and more reliable than rockets but ended up being more costly and less reliable.’ But, he cautions, only time will tell.

IS IT EVEN SPACE?

Virgin Galactic’s three test flights reached maximum altitudes of between 51.4 and 55.9 miles from the surface of the Earth, which is roughly the same distance planned for Branson’s maiden mission.

That’s high enough for those on board to be able to call themselves astronauts, according to NASA, along with America’s Federal Aviation Authority and the U.S. military. They believe space starts at 50 miles up.

But others disagree, saying that you don’t really leave Earth until you reach the Karman Line, a boundary that lies roughly 62 miles up. That’s the altitude accepted by the world governing body for aeronautic and astronautic records, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI).

‘Branson is only going to the edge of space,’ says Lord Martin Rees. ‘He will see that the sky is black, not blue, and be able to look at the curvature of the Earth, if only through quite a small window. But that’s it. He won’t really go to space, in my view.’

That view is shared by Blue Origin’s CEO Bob Smith who recently emailed the New York Times to stress that his rocket will be going a good ten miles higher than Branson’s: ‘We wish him a great and safe flight, but they’re not flying above the Karman Line, and it’s a very different experience.’

PS: Neither Branson nor Bezos can fly anything like as high as the world’s second wealthiest man, the Tesla founder Elon Musk.

His company SpaceX builds rockets capable of actually going into orbit, and in April managed to successfully ferry two NASA astronauts to the International Space station. Later this year, he plans to send an all-civilian crew on a three to four-day mission that will see them orbit Earth at least once.

Musk has also agreed to fly a Japanese billionaire around the Moon on a rocket named Starship in 2023. Although the tech billionaire won’t be on these flights, his ambitions extend not only to eventually visiting space but also reaching Mars and establishing a human colony there. In previous interviews he’s even said he’d like to eventually die there, adding wryly, ‘just not on impact’.

His relative success makes him scathing of rival rocket-men. Earlier this year, SpaceX was hired by NASA to build a new moon lander, prompting a complaint from Bezos, whose Blue Origin had also bid for the contract. Musk hit back on Twitter, saying the Amazon founder ‘can’t get it up (to orbit)’.  

HOW DOES RICHARD BRANSON’S VIRGIN GALACTIC CONDUCT ITS SPACE FLIGHTS?

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch.

Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).

The first WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve – which Virgin Galactic has used on all of its test flights – was rolled-out in 2008 and has a high-altitude, heavy payload capacity.

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.

Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to build more in future.

Once released from WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo’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.

WhiteKnightTwo (artist's impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

WhiteKnightTwo (artist's impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

WhiteKnightTwo (artist’s impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

This altitude is defined as beyond the edge of outer space by Nasa.

After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will shut it down, and passengers can then take off their seatbelts to experience weightlessness for several minutes.

The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to give the best possible views of Earth and space while raising the vehicle’s wings to its ‘feathered’ re-entry configuration, which decelerates the craft and stabilises its descent.

As gravity pulls the spaceship back towards the Earth’s upper atmosphere, astronauts will return to their seats ready to return to our planet.

At around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres), after re-entry, the pilot will return the spaceship’s wings to their normal configuration, ready to glide back to Earth for a smooth runway landing. 

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) - the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights - though the firm is expected to produce more in future

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) - the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights - though the firm is expected to produce more in future

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to produce more in future

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