Sir Richard Branson is getting closer to beating fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos into space, as the Virgin boss prepares to launch his Unity 22 spacecraft from New Mexico on Sunday.
Unity 22 will launch from the air after being carried to a high altitude by aeroplane. On Saturday Sir Richard tweeted simply “1…” as he neared the end of his daily countdown. He previously shared details of how to watch his journey live.
Both Virgin Galactic and Mr Bezos’s Blue Origin company are planning to allow commercial passengers to travel on the flights at a later date. Virgin has already sold some tickets, with prices peaking at $250,000, while Blue Origin is said to be looking at charging $200,000. “Neither of us are going to be able to build enough spaceships to satisfy the demand,” Sir Richard said.
Amazon founder Mr Bezos, who announced last week he was stepping down as the shopping company’s chief executive, is set to fly aboard his own space capsule, New Shepherd, nine days later. It will instead by launched by rocket. He will be accompanied on the flight by his brother Mark.
Both Unity 22 and New Shepherd cannot reach the speeds required for orbital flight. Instead they will aim for sub-orbital flight, which will allow their passengers to experience weightlessness for several minutes before returning to ground.
In addition to the tourist market, Virgin has entered contracts with Nasa to fly out researchers, and with the Italian Airforce for training would-be astronauts.
Mr Branson’s career has been characterised by a series of publicity stunts. In 1968 he reportedly muscled his way to the front line of the anti-Vietnam War Grosvenor Square demonstration and secured himself a Vogue profile as the voice of Britain’s student rebellion – in spite of the protest leaders being totally oblivious to his presence.
He will be hoping his mission is more successful than his previous world record attempts – several of which have ended in failure. In 1986 he sought to break the record for the fastest Atlantic Ocean crossing by balloon, but had to be rescued by helicopter from the Atlantic Ocean.