Virgin Galactic ‘neck and neck’ with Blue Origin in space tourism race

Just weeks after Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane completed its first powered test flight, Virgin boss Richard Branson says he’s getting ready to don his astronaut garb for its first commercial suborbital space trip.

Branson said in an upcoming BBC interview that Virgin Galactic’s debut mission was “months away, not years away, so it’s close,” adding that there are “exciting times ahead.”

The billionaire entrepreneur founded space tourism company Virgin Galactic in 2004, and is racing against rivals — Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin among them — to become the first to offer a service for moneyed folks in search of a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience. And Branson is determined to be on board when the VSS Unity heads skyward on its debut outing for tourists.

The Brit told the BBC that he’s already undertaking astronaut, fitness, and centrifuge training for his trip to near-space.

While Musk’s SpaceX has been making significant progress with efforts to deploy satellites and send cargo to the International Space Station via the company’s reusable rocket system, Branson believes Virgin Galactic’s immediate competitor in the tourism-related space race is Bezos’ Blue Origin, whose New Shepard rocket has so far completed eight successful test launches since its first one in 2015.

Branson said he believes his team is “neck and neck” with Blue Origin when it comes to getting paying punters into space.

However, acknowledging the disaster that struck Virgin Galactic in 2014 when one of its pilots died in a failed test flight, 67-year-old Branson said, “Ultimately, we have to do it safely. It’s more a race with ourselves to make sure we have the craft that are safe to put people up there.”

After a two-year layoff following the tragedy, Virgin Galactic took to the skies again in September 2016, performing the first glide test of its new SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, VSS Unity.

It followed up in April with its first powered test. Taken high above California’s Mojave Desert by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, Unity was released at 46,500 feet. Seconds later, Unity’s rocket motor fired up, sending the aircraft and its two pilots into an 80-degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during 30 seconds of rocket burn.

That’s pretty much how the first stages of the tourism flights will go, although the rocket will burn for longer to take the spaceplane to around 62 miles above sea level, considered as the boundary of space. After taking in the spectacular views and enjoying several minutes of weightlessness, the passengers will be instructed to return to their seats for the journey back to terra firma.

While both Unity and Blue Origin’s vehicles can carry up to six passengers, the travel experience in each will be very different. Blue Origin’s system involves a rocket launch whereas Virgin Galactic’s jet-powered WhiteKnightTwo takes off from a runway before Unity’s rocket engine fires up. The return journey is also different, with Unity gliding back for a runway landing, and New Shepard’s capsule deploying parachutes for touchdown.

Virgin Galactic is aiming to start its tourism service in the next 12 months. The company has already taken nearly 700 bookings for its suborbital flights, with each ticket costing a hefty $250,000. The company said that the growing list of travelers means anyone booking a ticket today is likely to have to wait until at least 2021 before they’ll be able to enjoy their out-of-this-world experience.

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