Billionaire Richard Branson could launch into space aboard his Virgin Galactic aircraft as its first passenger early 2021, potentially blazing a path for commercial flights.
The firm has repeatedly pushed back the date it will take the first tourists outside Earth’s atmosphere, but said 600 ‘future astronauts’ have already paid $250,000 to reserve a seat.
Branson’s trip to space hinges on the success of two upcoming test flight programs, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc said, with the first powered spaceflight scheduled for this fall from Spaceport America.
Virgin Galactic competes with billionaire-backed ventures such as Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin, which are all vying to usher in a new era of space tourism, racing to be the first to offer sub-orbital flights to civilian space travelers.
Virgin Galactic offers zero-gravity experiences to customers with its centerpiece SpaceShipTwo plane and has long-term point-to-point travel plans to quickly transport passengers from city to city at near-space altitudes.
Virgin Galactic said Monday it ‘expects to advance to the next phase of its test flight program’ in the fall with two manned flights.
‘Assuming both flights demonstrate the expected results, Virgin Galactic anticipates Sir Richard Branson’s flight to occur in the first quarter of 2021,’ the company said in a statement.
The groundbreaking flight by Branson, Virgin Galactic’s founder, would pave the way for commercial voyages to begin.
The program has been hit by serious snags, however, with a devastating crash in 2014 caused by pilot error delaying the development of passenger aircraft SpaceShipTwo.
Getting tourists into space is not a simple exercise.
The spacecraft will be taken up by a special plane and released at high altitude. Seconds later, the spaceship will ignite its engine and blast upward with an acceleration of 3.5 g, meaning three and a half times that of Earth’s gravitational force.
It will then cut off the engine, which will create a feeling of weightlessness for a few minutes as the spacecraft reaches its highest point, about 50 miles above the planet, and then begin its descent.
It will glide to land at Spaceport America, built in the New Mexico desert.
Branson has set a series of aviation and nautical adventure records, although he failed, despite numerous attempts, to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a balloon.
These exploits brought Branson close to tragedy in 1998 when he and his co-pilot had to ditch their balloon in the Pacific Ocean after low pressure forced the craft down.
Virgin Galactic unveiled the design of the spaceplane cabin and seats last month in a livestream on YouTube that presented its interior in virtual reality to let people really experience it.
‘We will continue with that ethos as we expand our fleet, build our operations and underpin Virgin Galactic’s position as the Spaceline for Earth,’ Branson said.
‘This cabin has been designed specifically to allow thousands of people like you and me to achieve the dream of spaceflight safely – and that is incredibly exciting.’
Virgin Galactic worked with London design agency Seymourpowell on the cabin interior, described as ‘an elegant but progressive, experience-focused concept’.
It has been designed to ‘integrate seamlessly with every other aspect of the astronauts’ journey’ while also being the design centerpiece for Virgin Galactic.