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Richard Branson, the British billionaire, plans to fly into space on Sunday from New Mexico aboard a rocket made by his company Virgin Galactic.
Nine days later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is expected to fly into space from West Texas in a capsule made by his company Blue Origin.
The high-profile launches are the latest developments in efforts to kick off the era of space tourism, and it is hoped that they will inspire confidence in new spacecraft – and satisfy childhood aspirations.
“I was a kid once, standing with my dad and sister, looking at the moon, I was told that Buzz and Neil were standing on it,” Branson told NPR’s morning edition this week, referring to Apollo 11 astronauts. “And I just thought, I have to go to space someday.”
Bezos, likewise, says he has dreamed of traveling to space since he was 5 years old.
Branson took his first steps towards making his dreams come true in 2004, when he registered the Virgin Galactic name with the idea of making space travel possible for his generation. Now his efforts are taking off.
“I feel like a kid myself,” Branson said.
The Virgin Galactic project crossed by the tragedy
Branson thought he might be able to reach his goal in six or seven years. “But space is very difficult. Rocket science is very difficult. And it took 17 years of brave test pilots and 800 engineers to come up with a really safe system to get us into space, and then, to space. early next year, to start taking members of the public to space, ”he told NPR.
The Virgin Galactic Unity 22 mission will have two pilots and four “mission specialists” in the cabin, including Branson, whose official role is described as “test the experience of private astronauts. ”
In 2014, a pilot on a Virgin Galactic test flight was killed when he crashed in California’s Mojave Desert. An investigation revealed that a pilot error and design issues were the cause of the crash.
But Branson did not end the company’s journey to space.
“Obviously our team made sure that something like this could never happen again,” he said. “Back then, you know, we had to decide. Are we going to continue or not? I sat down with 800 engineers. Because we could rectify this particular problem, we continued.”
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Branson will fly earlier than Bezos, but won’t climb as high
Jeff Bezos announced last month that he would be going to space on July 20, along with his brother and two other people, aboard his company’s New Shepard.
One of those passengers will be Wally Funk. She is one of the last surviving members of a group of female pilots who in 1961 participated in a test to see if women were fit for space travel. They passed many of the same tests as male pilots and became known as the Mercury 13 – but NASA never sent them into space.
Branson was scheduled to take a Virgin Galactic flight later this year, but after Bezos announced he was taking off, Branson moved to an earlier launch date.
Unlike a traditional launch, Virgin Galactic uses a special “mother ship” to fly the rocket plane up to about 50,000 feet. The rocket-powered aircraft will then be jettisoned from the mothership, ignite its rocket, and zoom to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere – about 50 miles above sea level.
The crew will experience a few minutes of weightlessness before the plane falls to earth and lands in New Mexico.
There is debate as to whether Virgin Galactic’s flight path will actually reach “space.” Due to its design, the maximum altitude of the Branson craft is below the internationally recognized Karman Line as the altitude at which space begins – approximately 62 miles above sea level (although this definition itself is also in the study).
Bezos’ Blue Origins flight will briefly cross this line.
The company’s Twitter account released unsubtle statements about the elevation differential on Friday.
“From the start, New Shepard was designed to fly over the Karman Line, so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name.” Blue Origin tweeted.
Hundreds of people have registered for the chance to travel to space
NASA ended its shuttle program 10 years ago and was hoping private companies would step into the void. And they have. Elon Musk’s SpaceX regularly transports astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
More than 700 people have already signed up for commercial passenger flights according to Virgin Galactic will start in 2022, at a price between $ 200,000 and $ 250,000 each. Due to the numbers, the company has stopped taking reservations. Branson believes demand will be stratospheric after Sunday’s flight.
“When we open after our trip, I think we’re going to be inundated with people who want to go to space,” he said.
NASA’s last shuttle commander Chris Ferguson said he was impressed that Branson and Bezos were flying out ahead of their clients.
“It’s a sure-fire way to show confidence in your product is to get started,” Ferguson said Thursday, according to the Associated Press. “I’m sure it wasn’t a decision taken lightly. I wish them both good luck. I think it’s great.”
Russell Lewis of NPR contributed to this report.