Richard Branson tries his first space flight with Virgin Galactic on Sunday

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, on the company’s first day of listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York on October 28, 2019. JOHANNES EISELE / AFP

There was a simple and innocent time when billionaires were content to have a yacht bigger than the rest. They are now racing to be the first to go into space. In the category “My rocket is bigger than yours”, Richard Branson has decided to bring forward the date of his flight to the limit of Earth’s gravity in order to beat his competitors on the pole.

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The British billionaire must take off aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity this Sunday, July 11 at 3 p.m. French time, if the weather and the latest technical settings allow it. The trip will only last an hour. After takeoff under the belly of a carrier plane from New Mexico, in the United States, the shuttle will be released at an altitude of 15,000 meters. It will accelerate vertically to more than three times the speed of sound, reaching the limits of the Earth’s atmosphere, at the border of space. Passengers will know “Several minutes” close to an absence of gravity. The shuttle will then return to Earth.

A simple amateur

The date was not chosen at random. On June 7, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, announced that he was heading to space aboard Blue Origin on July 20. Three weeks later, Mr. Branson announced the date of his own project. “I know no one will believe me, but, honestly, there is no [de concurrence entre nous] », he retorted without blinking on NBC. As for Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, he has so far not given a date or even clearly announced that he will personally go to space, even though his company has already organized manned flights.

Mr. Branson hopes he can assess the “customer experience” including “seat comfort” and “the views of Earth afforded by the spacecraft”

Mr. Branson’s embarkation to the limits of Earth’s attraction paves the way for space tourism. If this is the twenty-second flight of Virgin Galactic, and the fourth manned, it is the first time that a simple amateur has boarded the spaceship in this way. Until now, only the pilots and the very trained crew of the company had attempted the adventure.

Mr. Branson speaks of Virgin Galactic almost like an airline. He hopes to be able to assess “Customer experience”, including the “Seat comfort” and “The views of the Earth offered by the spacecraft”. On June 25, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a license to the company authorizing it to carry customers. Tickets have gone on sale and six hundred reservations have already been made, as many as all the atronauts to have been to space in all of history. Price of the trip: around 250,000 dollars (around 211,000 euros), with the first departures in 2022, hopes Virgin Galactic. A flaw compared to Blue Origin rates from Mr Bezos, which sold a seat at auction for July 20 for $ 28 million.


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Eric Albert(London, correspondence)

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