Richard Branson commits to SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity flight beyond Earths atmosphere
Virgin Galactic will take its first trip into space within weeks according to Richard Branson, the firms billionaire chief and founder.
The feat would mark a milestone for the company which is in a race against Jeff Bezos Blue Origin and Elon Musks SpaceX to offer space flights to wealthy would-be astronauts.
In an interview with CNBC, Branson said his company was more than tantalisingly close to its first landmark flight beyond Earths atmosphere, stating: we should be in space within weeks, not months.
The entrepreneur added that he hoped to be onboard an early Virgin Galactic flight in months not years, with passengers willing to part with $250,000 (192,000) taking their seats not too long after that.
Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, originally promised suborbital flights those that reach space without orbiting the planet by 2009. But the firms plans have been delayed by numerous setbacks and the loss of the companys previous space plane in a 2014 accident that killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury.
Test pilots have been putting the SpaceShipTwo craft, VSS Unity, through its paces high above the Mojave desert in California. In the most recent test in July, the space plane was released from its jet-powered carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, at 46,500 feet before the Unitys pilots lit its rocket. The 42-second burn blasted it to 171,000 feet, nearly five times the cruising altitude of a transatlantic passenger plane. Its top speed was logged at Mach 2.47.
To reach space, the pilots must take the Unity higher still. The upper atmosphere is generally regarded to give way to space at an altitude of 62 miles (100km), nearly twice the altitude achieved in the July test flight.
Branson has had astronaut, fitness and centrifuge training to prepare himself for his trip into space. Asked in the interview whether he was confident enough people would pay for tickets, he told CNBC: If I have a room full of 10 people, eight out of 10 would love to go to space if they could afford it.