Sir Richard Branson is today due to launch into space aboard a Virgin Galactic rocket plane as he kicks off the race to roll out space tourism.
The British billionaire will be one of six people aboard the plane, which will climb more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert to the edge of space.
It will be the vehicle’s first fully crewed flight and comes just days ahead of a planned launch for his space rival — Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
Bezos is planning to fly aboard his own suborbital rocketship, the New Shepard, later this month.
Branson has touted the flight as a precursor to a new era of space tourism, though it’s hardly a discount service.
Still, demand is apparently strong with several hundred wealthy would-be astronauts having already booked spots, price at $250,000 per ticket.
The Swiss-based investment bank UBS has estimated the potential value of the space tourism market reaching $3bn annually by 2030.
A key aim of the test flight will be proving the safety of space flight. An earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.
The launch of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity rocket plane will be the company’s 22nd test flight and its fourth crewed mission beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
But it will be the first to carry a full crew — with four passengers alongside the two pilots.
Due to weather conditions, the flight has been delayed by 90 minutes. It is now scheduled to launch at 10.30am ET (3.30pm BST) from Spaceport America near the aptly named New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences.
Separating from the carrier jet at an altitude of 50,000 feet, Unity’s pilots will ignite its rocket engine to send the spaceplane streaking in a near-vertical climb to the blackness of space some 55 miles high, where the crew will experience about 4 minutes of microgravity.
The vehicle’s engine will then be shut down, and the craft will be shifted into re-entry mode and make a gliding descent to a runway at the spaceport.
The entire flight, from takeoff to landing, should take about 90 minutes, meaning Branson will be back in plenty of time for England’s Euro 2020 final clash against Italy tonight.
Assuming the mission goes well, Virgin has plans for two further test flights of the spaceplane before beginning commercial service in 2022.