Sir Richard Branson will fly to the edge of space on a spaceplane built by his own company on Sunday, declaring it is 'time to turn my dream into reality,' as he takes to the stars nine days before rival Jeff Bezos.
He will travel on VSS Unity, which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The extraordinary trip is one week before his 71st birthday, and he will be joined by five others on what has been dubbed the Unit 22 test flight - as it is the 22nd test flight for the spaceplane.
The British billionaire will launch on the next of three test flights, the first with a full compliment of 'astronauts' in the cabin, before they begin flying the first of 600 'future astronaut' ticket holders in 2022.
Branson is Astronaut 001 and will travel with Chief Astronaut Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003) and VP of Government Affairs Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004) in the cabin.Insurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
Meanwhile, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos will launch to the edge of space on the New Shepherd rocket on July 20 - the 52nd anniversary of the first moon landing.
Branson denied that he and Bezos were in a 'battle of the billionaire space founders' to see who would go up first, despite changing from the second to the first VSS Unity test flight in order to go up before Bezos.
'I just wish him and people going up with him all the very best,' he said, adding he 'looks forward to talking to him about his ride when he comes back.'
Virgin Galactic founder, Sir Richard Branson, moved his trip to space to an earlier test flight after Jeff Bezos announced he was going up, but claims no rivalry, saying 'we both wished each other well'
He will travel to space on VSS Unity on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico
He will travel on VSS Unity, which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unity is seen here attached to Eve
Dubbed the 'NewSpace' set, Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk all say they were inspired by the first moon landing in 1969, when the US beat the Soviet Union in the space race, and there is no doubt how much it would mean to each of them to win the 'new space race'.Insurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
Amazon founder Bezos had looked set to be the first of the three to fly to space, having announced plans to launch aboard his space company Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft on July 20.
However, Branson has now announced he's planning to make a suborbital flight nine days before Bezos and his brother.
Although SpaceX and Tesla founder Musk has said he wants to go into space, and even 'die on Mars', he has not said when he might blast into orbit.
SpaceX appears to be leading the way in the broader billionaire space race with numerous launches carrying NASA equipment to the ISS and partnerships to send tourists to space by 2021.
Joining the Virgin Galactic staff filling the cabin, pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci will fly VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer will fly VMS Eve.
Once it reaches 50,000 feet the carrier plane releases Unity, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.
Once released Unity's rocket motor engages 'within seconds', according to Virgin Galactic.
The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth's surface.
'I've always been a dreamer. My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars,' said Branson.
There are dozens of 'founder astronauts' who purchased a ticket to travel to space in the first years after the firm was formed who will be at the launch on Sunday.
Among them is Namira Salim, who hopes to launch early next year. She has been waiting 15 years to launch, and become the first person from Pakistan in space.
Salim has been an active ambassador for space as the new frontier for peace, and says she can't wait to watch the launch on Sunday, and then go up herself.
Branson said he was going into space to 'test the customer experience' from start to finish, to ensure that those paying to go up get the best possible experience.
It will be the fourth crewed flight of VSS Unity and only the second to include passengers in the cabin, the first saw Beth Moses go up in February 2019.
The news that Branson would go up on this flight came soon after the FCC granted Virgin Galactic a change to their operator licence that allowed them to take paying travellers up to the edge of space.
'After a successful flight in late May and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for a Full Commercial Launch Licence, the pathway towards commercial launch is clear,' Branson said.
A photo shows the release of VSS Unity from VMS Eve and ignition of rocket motor over Spaceport America, New Mexico
The crew will test all aspects of the astronaut experience, including the view of the Earth from the windows, as seen here during a flight in December 2018
Chief Astronaut Beth Moses tested the Virgin Galactic cabin in the first flight last year with someone other than the pilots on board, she will join Sir Richard for his flight on Sunday
Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic
Moses will serve as cabin lead and test director in space, overseeing the safe and efficient execution of the test flight objectives
Colin Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer at Virgin Galactic
Bennett will evaluate cabin equipment, procedures, and experience during both the boost phase and in the weightless environment
Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic
Bandla will be evaluating the human-tended research experience, using an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes that will be activated at various points in the flight profile.
Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic
Branson will evaluate the private astronaut experience and will undergo the same training, preparation and flight as Virgin Galactic's future astronauts.
Virgin Galactic will use his observations from his flight training and spaceflight experience to enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers.
The pilots for this mission are Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci flying VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer flying VMS Eve.
'Virgin Galactic still has tests to come, and this is the time for me to assess the astronaut experience.
'When we return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people the chance to become an astronaut. Because space belongs to us all. So watch this space,' said Branson in a blog post before the launch.
This will be the first of three final flights required to test all aspects of the cabin and passenger experience, with Branson saying he got 'truly excited' when the final safety checks cam through and he was asked if he wanted to go into space
'I've been looking forward to this for 17 years,' Branson said from Spaceport America near the remote town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
He said pre-flight preparations only add to the excitement ahead of Sunday's scheduled launch, which will be taking place one week before his 71st birthday. 'Every bit about it is a pinch-me moment,' he added.
For the first flight that included someone in the cabin, Chief Astronaut Beth Moses went up into space alone, only accompanied by the two pilots in the cockpit.
This will be the first flight to carry a full complement of space travellers, consisting of Branson, two pilots and three mission specialists, who are all members of the Virgin Galactic management team.
Branson has been styled as Astronaut 001 for the first full-cabin flight, although it isn't clear whether this numbering scheme will continue after paying passengers start going into space.
He will travel with Virgin Galactic Chief Astronaut Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003) and Vice President of Government Affairs Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004). They will fly along with pilots David Mackay, Michael Masucci up front of the VSS Unity spaceship.
'We are at the vanguard of a new industry determined to pioneer twenty-first century spacecraft, which will open space to everybody — and change the world for good,' Branson declared.
In a blog post on the run up to the flight, Branson wrote: 'It's one thing to have a dream of making