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Branson pips Bezos with plans to blast into space days a week sooner

Richard Branson plans to fly to space on July 11, days before a similar journey by fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos. The shares of Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings surged.

The VSS Unity spacecraft will also carry three Virgin Galactic employees and two pilots from the launch site in New Mexico, according to a company statement on Thursday. Bezos is planning a trip to space July 20 from nearby West Texas aboard a rocket made by Blue Origin, the Amazon.com founder’s space company.

Richard Branson plans to blast into orbit to evaluate the “private astronaut experience”.

Richard Branson plans to blast into orbit to evaluate the “private astronaut experience”.Credit:PA

Branson’s suborbital flight would fulfil a longtime goal for the British billionaire and Virgin Galactic, which he founded in 2004. The company recently completed data analysis from its last test flight on May 22, and concluded it was ready to evaluate the cabin experience, said chief executive officer Michael Colglazier. Branson had his pick of which of two planned flights this summer he’d prefer to join.

“The foundation of it is: We’re ready,” Colglazier said in an interview. “There is nothing about a space race or ‘Who goes first?’ that played into this. We do our test flights when we’re ready to fly them.”

Branson will evaluate the “private astronaut experience,” the company said, as Virgin Galactic prepares to offer flights to well-heeled customers in 2022. The voyage this month will be similar to the test flight in May, in which the Unity flew to an altitude of more than 55 miles (89 kilometres).

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“After more than 16 years of research, engineering, and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry, which is set to open space to humankind and change the world for good,” Branson said in the statement.

Virgin Galactic soared 27 per cent to $US54.98 after the close of regular trading in New York.

The trip will be Virgin Galactic’s fourth flight to space with crew members. Joining Branson will be Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor, who has flown previously; Colin Bennett, an operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs.

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