Richard Branson is set to become the first rocket company boss to be launched off the planet on Sunday, with Virgin Galactic’s space plane set to hurtle to the edge of space with the eccentric billionaire on board.
The London-born founder of the Virgin Group will join five company employees for the test flight Sunday morning, which is set to take off from New Mexico’s southern desert at 10:30 a.m. ET.
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It’s the company’s fourth trip to the edge of space. The first successful launch took place in 2018, following two disastrous failures that had taken place since Virgin Galactic’s founding in 2004.
A 2007 rocket motor test in California’s Mojave Desert left three workers dead and three more injured. Then in 2014, the rocket plane Enterprise — named after the “Star Trek” ship — broke apart during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.
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But after making it off the planet once, the successful ship — named Unity by the late physicist Stephen Hawking — has since made it to space two more times.
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Should Sunday’s launch go off without a hitch, the 70-year-old Branson will join a group of just shy of 600 people who have ever had the chance to leave planet Earth.
“I’m in my 70s now, so you either let yourself go, or you get fit and enjoy life,” Branson has said of his plans.
When he makes it to space, he said, “I’ll be looking back at our beautiful Earth and taking it all in.”
His wife, children and grandchildren are set to watch the launch Sunday morning. Unity will be attached to a specially designed double aircraft — which was nicknamed Eve, after Branson’s late mother — and soar upwards. When the plane reaches 50,000 feet, it will be released.
In that moment, Unity will briefly drop. Its rocket motor will then ignite, firing the billionaire and his fellow passengers towards the stars.
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When the craft reaches the edge of space, its motor will cut out. The passengers will then be offered a few minutes of weightlessness, unbuckling to gaze at both the stars and the planet where their family and friends remain. They’ll then strap back in, and come gliding back to Earth.
Branson was originally slated to head to space later this summer. But when he heard Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos has his own rocket launch scheduled for July 20, the billionaire space race kicked into high gear, with Branson moving up his flight to Sunday.
Virgin Galactic isn’t slated to open its operations to ticket-paying customers until at least next year — but for those wishing to experience space for themselves, it comes with a steep price. Initial tickets for the eventual space flights went for $250,000; and there’s no word on whether that will change.
— With files from The Associated Press, Reuters
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