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Space tourism: Virgin Galactic ‘weeks’ away from first test flights in space

VSS Unity | Third Rocket Powered Flight

Virgin Galactic has its sights set on launching the first-ever commercial space tourism service, with chairman Richard Branson insisting his effort could be up and running in a matter of months.

Branson said in a CNBC interview on Tuesday, October 9 that “within weeks” a test flight will take Virgin Galactic crew members into space for the first time, with himself and others joining the debut commercial mission “in months and not years.” He added that his team has a “very, very exciting couple of months ahead.”

Virgin Galactic has so far this year completed three successful rocket-powered test flights of its latest SpaceShipTwo plane, VSS Unity, but the vehicle has yet to be tested at the target altitude of 62 miles. According to Branson, that should all change later this month.

When the space tourism service goes into operation, VSS Unity will take two crew members and six paying passengers on thrilling trips to a point widely regarded as the edge of space and where those on board will be able to experience several minutes of weightlessness.

Some 700 people have already paid $250,000 each for a seat on the spacecraft, and Virgin Galactic has said that the clamor for places means that anybody purchasing a ticket today will probably have to wait until at least 2021 before they can get to experience the ride of a lifetime.

Acknowledging that the huge fee puts the ride out of reach of most people on the planet, Branson told CNBC he’d like to see the price fall to around $40,000 or $50,000 over the next decade.

But Virgin Galactic has serious competition in the form of Blue Origin, a space company owned by another billionaire entrepreneur, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos. Branson said earlier this year that Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin were neck and neck in their respective quests to launch commercial space tourism services.

Like VSS Unity, Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle can also carry up to six passengers, though each service will offer a very different travel experience. Blue Origin’s setup uses a rocket launch, while Virgin Galactic uses a runway launch with a carrier aircraft that helps VSS Unity to begin its journey, with the spacecraft’s rocket engines firing up later once it reaches a certain altitude. The return journey is also different, with New Shepard’s capsule deploying parachutes for a gentle touchdown and Unity gliding back to terra firma for a smooth runway landing.

And don’t forget SpaceX, which recently announced a plan to send a paying passenger — and eight others — on a trip around the moon in 2023.

The road has so far been a tricky one for Virgin Galactic. Founded in 2004, the company originally aimed for a 2009 launch of its space service, but various setbacks along the way, the most serious involving the death of a pilot in a failed test flight in 2014, have slowed progress. A string of successful test flights this year with new vehicle designs have helped to put it back on track, with Branson clearly confident that Virgin Galactic can take some major steps forward in the coming months.

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Trevor Mogg
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