Just after sunrise on Sunday Richard Branson will take off from a lonely runway in an attempt to win the billionaire space race.
The Virgin tycoon hopes to fulfil a lifelong dream and, in doing so, beat the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, into orbit.
“It is time to turn my dream into reality,” Branson said.
“As a child I wanted to go to space. When that did not look likely for my generation I registered the name Virgin Galactic with the notion of creating a company that could make it happen.”
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The lucrative, high-stakes chase for stellar tourists is set to unfold on the fringes of space – 55 to 66 miles up – pitting Branson against Bezos.
Sir Richard, 70, is due to take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The historic trip will launch two pilots, the billionaire and three others aboard a rocket plane carried aloft by a carrier aircraft.
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Once it reaches 50,000ft the plane will release VSS Unity, a reusable winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots.
Unity’s rocket motor will then fire, propelling it on the final leg into space.
The craft will fly at about three-and-a-half times the speed of sound (2,600mph) into sub-orbital space, soaring around 60 miles above the Earth.
Branson is Astronaut 001 and will travel with chief astronaut Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), lead operations engineer Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003) and Virgin Galactic vice-president Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004). Joining the Virgin staff will be pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci.
Branson has invested 16 years and more than £1billion to finally make the short trip to the edge of space which he hopes will open up tourism to others.
The project took years longer than expected. Setbacks included a catastrophic break-up during a test flight and a crash in the Mojave Desert.
Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed and pilot Peter Siebold seriously injured.
More than 700 people have signed up for the £180,000 trips, including celebrities Tom Hanks, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.
Watching Sunday’s launch will be dozens of “founder astronauts” who bought tickets to fly in the first years after the firm was founded.
Rival Bezos, 57, will blast off from Texas nine days later than Branson.
He will be joined in the automated capsule by his brother Mark, along with a female aviation pioneer, 82, who has waited 60 years for a space shot, and the winner of a £20million charity auction.
The race between the two billionaires has been fraught.
Branson’s flight will be longer, while Bezos’ will be higher. The Virgin craft has more windows, the American’s windows are bigger.
Branson’s flight will last 14 to 17 minutes from when the space plane drops from the mothership until it glides to a runway landing.
Bezos’s Blue Origin’s flight lasts 10 minutes by the time the capsule parachutes on to the desert floor.
Branson, worth a reported £4.2billion, denies that he and Bezos are in a “battle of the billionaire space founders” to see who could go up first.
This despite bringing forward his launch to beat the Amazon boss.
He said: “I look forward to talking to him about his ride when he comes back.”
The blast-off billionaires, including SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who has yet to announce a manned flight date, often engage in banter.
Asked if he was trying to beat Jeff Bezos, who is worth £152billion, Branson replied: “Jeff who?”
Even though the Virgin boss is launching first, Bezos could still claim ultimate victory.
Unity doesn’t quite reach the 62-mile altitude most often considered the edge of outer space, while Bezos’s rocket passes above that height.
Virgin Galactic will broadcast the flight starting from 1pm. The live stream will be available on www.virgingalactic.com