Sir Richard Branson has thanked Elon Musk for being ‘typically supportive’ as the Virgin Galactic boss counts down the hours to becoming the world’s first billionaire to blast into space on Sunday’s historic flight.
The British billionaire, 70, will fly to the edge of space – nine days before ‘rival’ Jeff Bezos – on a craft built by his own company after declaring it is ‘time to turn my dream into reality’.
Branson will travel on VSS Unity, which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
He had tweeted a countdown to the lift-off before fellow entrepreneur Musk, 50, commented: ‘Will see you there to wish you the best.’
Sir Richard soon posted a light-hearted reply that read: ‘Thanks for being so typically supportive and such a good friend, Elon. Great to be opening up space for all – safe travels and see you at Spaceport America!’
Sir Richard, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are all part of what is being dubbed the ‘NewSpace’ set.
The group have all said that they were inspired by the first moon landing in 1969, when the US beat the Soviet Union in the space race, and had previously said how much it would mean for each 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.
But Branson later revealed his suborbital flight was planned nine days before Bezos.
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.
Sir Richard Branson (left) has thanked Elon Musk (right) for being ‘typically supportive’ as the Virgin Galactic boss counts down the hours to becoming world’s first billionaire to blast into space on Sunday’s historic flight
Branson had initially tweeted a countdown to the lift-off before fellow entrepreneur Musk, 50, commented: ‘Will see you there to wish you the best’
The who’s who of the ‘mega-rich space race’
Sir Richard Branson
Sir Richard was the first to take steps towards commercial spaceflights, founding Virgin Galactic in 2004, and initially intended to launch a private spacecraft by 2009 before delays scuppered his plans.
He is now hoping to be the first billionaire into space with his flight on July 11 aboard the VSS Unity spacecraft – the first time Virgin Galactic has launched a fully crewed flight to the edge of space.
It comes after a number of setbacks for Virgin Galactic including the death of a pilot aboard the VSS Enterprise during a test flight which broke up and crashed in the Mojave Desert in October 2014.
Sunday’s flight will be the 22nd launch by Virgin Galactic.
Sir Richard announced the flight shortly after Jeff Bezos announced his planned launch on June 20, but denied he is trying to beat his fellow billionaire.
There will be two pilots and four mission specialists including Sir Richard aboard the Unity, which will be carried by the twin-fuselage carrier jet VMS Eve to 50,000ft and will then propel itself upwards where the passengers will experience zero gravity.
Sir Richard got his start in business by using Student, a magazine he founded in 1968, as a springboard to launch a mail-order record company which led him to start Virgin Records, his first major venture.
He used the success of Virgin Records to launch into a number of industries with Virgin branding, including an airline, gyms, publishing and an ill-fated cola brand.
Sir Richard now has a net worth of £4 billion.
Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin was founded in 2000 and he used a 1982 interview with the Miami Herald to show his interest in humanity leaving Earth.
Blue Origin is slated to launch its reusable New Shepard rocket on July 20 carrying Mr Bezos, his brother Mark, a mystery passenger who paid £20 million at auction, and Wally Funk, a female astronaut trained in 1961 but who never went to space.
She will become the oldest person to reach space if the flight is successful.
The New Shepard has a conventional launch method involving a booster rocket taking off vertically and then separating from the capsule at a suborbital height.
The rocket has no crew and is autonomous, unlike Mr Bezos’ rivals’ spacecraft.
He is the founder and former chief executive of Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer.
He founded Amazon as an online bookstore before branching out into consumer goods in 1998. He is also owner of Blue Origin and the Washington Post.
His net worth is currently £154 billion.
The South African owner of Tesla has become well known for his efforts to ignite space travel.
His greatest contribution so far is the creation of reusable booster rockets through SpaceX.
Mr Musk was the first to announce a fully private spaceflight in February and will attempt the launch in the autumn.
Space tourism is a secondary concern for SpaceX which primarily wants to colonise Mars, with Mr Musk saying he wants to die on the Red Planet.
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft will feature a four-person crew led by Jason Isaacman, the founder of Shift4 Payments, an online payment company.
The Dragon will take off from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral which SpaceX has been using for launches since 2017.
Mr Musk is best known for being the eccentric chief executive of Tesla, the electric car company, but made his fortune by founding PayPal.
He has become a leading proponent of cryptocurrency, even accepting payment for Tesla cars in Bitcoin for a period earlier this year.
He has a net worth of £129 billion.
The exchange comes as Branson revealed how it had been his dream to go to space ever since seeing the moon landing as a youngster before adding that he now wanted to inspire a new generation.
In the clip posted online earlier today he explained: ‘The moon landing was a catalytic moment for me. I remember my dad taking me outside onto the village green and we just looked up at the moon.
‘I really did think that myself and many other young people would one day be able to go into space. I waited and I waited for that opportunity and it never came but it got me thinking.
‘I went to the registry office and I registered the name Virgin Galactic Airways.’
Following a montage of behind the scenes footage Sir Richard continued: ‘I think in the same way I was inspired by the moon landing, I really hope that there will be millions of kids all over the world that will be captivated and inspired about the possibility of them going to space one day.’
Sir Richard’s 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.
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.
It comes after Sir Richard’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 is the eldest child of Richard Branson and his wife Joan. The University College London graduate worked as a junior doctor for Britain’s National Health Service before joining the Virgin Group in 2008.
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.’
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.
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.
Sir Richard will fly to the edge of space on a spaceplane built by his own company after declaring it is ‘time to turn my dream into reality’. Pictured: Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, is released from mothership VMS Eve
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
The news that Branson would go up on this flight came soon after the FCC granted Virgin Galactic a change to their operator license that allowed them to take paying travelers up to the edge of space.
‘After a successful flight in late May and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for a Full Commercial Launch License, the pathway towards commercial launch is clear,’ Branson said.
‘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.’
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 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
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.
‘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.
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
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
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 for this mission are Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci flying VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer flying VMS Eve.
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.
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.
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
Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research operations
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.
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 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.’
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
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)
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