The extravagant British entrepreneur Richard Branson has never been so close to achieving the crazy scheme that has been driving him for more than a decade – to offer earthlings a return trip to space spanning 90 minutes. Closely followed by billionaire competitors, for several months he has benefited from his technical prowess, and his commercial offer to wealthy tourists.
Genesis of a crazy project
To put it mildly, Richard Branson was fascinated by what happened two days after his nineteenth birthday: the first footsteps of man on the moon. This event had a great impact on him to the point that in 2004 he decided to create his commercial space flight business, and decreed that the very first commercial flight of a spaceship of his company Virgin Galactic would take place on the 20th of July 2019, in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landing of Apollo 11. Announced in 2008 for the “following 18 months”, this first flight was constantly postponed and, in 2014, following an accident which cost the life of the co pilot and seriously injured the pilot, Richard Branson lowered his ambitions, preferring to take the necessary time to achieve his goals. Of course, the competition between billionaires to offer space trips to wealthy tourists is raging, including Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and founder of Tesla, Elon Musk’s, SpaceX. Still it could be that the British billionaire is about to succeed in his gamble.
A trip costing $2,755 per minute
Richard Branson’s project of travelling just over the boundary of space has its supporters, judging by the 600 tickets already reserved from 58 countries, such as the United States (Léonardo di Caprio) and Canada (Justin Bieber). This 90 minute space flight – at a cost of $248,000 – will offer these bold tourists an incredible experience: launched by a carrier plane, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will hurtle towards the sky at a speed equivalent to 2.9 times the speed of sound to reach a height of 80 kilometres above the earth. Once the boundary of space has been crossed, the six passengers and two pilots will be able to observe the curve of the earth, and to experience a few minutes of weightlessness, before gliding down to its launch point in California. Moving forward the first commercial flight is scheduled for July 20th 2019, with Richard Branson himself on board. There have been multiple successful trials and tests: in December 2018, the vessel was catapulted more than eighty kilometres above the earth with two pilots and Annie the mannequin taking the place of a passenger, and in February 2019, a hight of eighty-eight kilometres was attained.
Space tourism raises some questions, including whether space tourists will be able to receive their wings – an American badge awarded to astronauts – if they cross the 80 kilometre boundary established by US authorities and at 100 kilometres by other international bodies.