Virgin Galactic is “weeks, not months” away from its first trip into space.
Sir Richard Branson told CNBC: “We should be in space within weeks, not months. And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years.”
He added that “not too long after” the company would be taking its first passengers out to the stars.
A Virgin Galactic spokesperson confirmed to The Independent: “We have now undertaken three supersonic rocket powered flights with VSS Unity, the latest of which saw the spaceship enter the Mesosphere for the first time at almost two and half times the speed of sound, achieving an altitude of 171,000ft.
“We will be aiming to reach space for the first time in the next phase of test flights, which are due to start in the coming weeks.”
The company, founded by Sir Richard in 2004, promised to be taking tourists on suborbital space trips by 2009; delays and a fatal crash in 2014, which saw one pilot killed and another injured, have pushed back the intended first flight multiple times.
The Virgin founder is determined to go into space himself, and has done astronaut training in preparation.
“I’m going for astronaut training, I’m going for fitness training, centrifuge and other training so that my body will hopefully cope well when I go to space,” he told BBC Radio 4’s You And Yours in May 2018.
He also said he was building up his fitness through tennis, kiting and cycling: “If you’re going to really enjoy the experience, the fitter you can be the better.”
Sir Richard is up against Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Amazon boss Jeff Bezos in the space race; all three are vying to be the first to achieve commercial space travel.
“I think we’re both [Sir Richard and Mr Bezos] neck and neck as to who will put people into space first,” he said. “Ultimately we have to do it safely. It’s more a race with ourselves to make sure we have the craft that are safe to put people up there.”
Virgin Galactic’s most recent rocket-powered flight, which took place in July, broke Mach 2 after a clean release, with pilots Dave Mackay and Mike ‘Sooch’ Masucci at the helm.
The rocket’s engine was fired for 11 seconds longer than during the previous test.
Virgin Galactic’s goal is for the VSS Unity to reach 264,000ft, a height at which passengers would experience weightlessness while still seeing the curvature of the earth.
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