(NEW YORK) — Before Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson accomplishes his dream of sending paying customers to space, he’ll try it out himself. In an interview with ABC News, the billionaire entrepreneur said his birthday this summer coincides with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic moon landing, a moment he said inspired him to set up what he calls a “space line.”
“I realized that governments were not really interested in you and me going to space,” he said.
“We could make it possible hopefully to put thousands of people in the years to come. So yeah, July the 18th is my birthday so why not? We’ll go for that.”
So who, besides Branson, is lining up for a round-trip flight to space? Apparently, quite a few, although the exact number has not been released.
“The amount of people who want to go into space is ridiculously large and we’ve just got to make sure that we can make it affordable for a lot of them.”
The plan at Virgin Galactic is to carry six passengers at a time into space for four minutes of weightlessness. The price tag right now is about $250,000.
“We’re a business and we’re not making money by not taking customers yet,” said Mark “Forger” Stucky, one of the pilots at Virgin Galactic.
“So we need to get through the flight test program and get on with taking customers.”
In December 2018, Stucky and Frederick “C.J.” Sturckow piloted the latest test flight of their spaceplane VSS Unity to 51.4 miles over the California desert, just crossing the Federal Aviation Administration’s definition of space for the first time.
Two months later, Sturckow and Stucky were awarded their commercial space flight wings in a joyous ceremony at FAA headquarters. Branson spoke at the event and took the opportunity to reflect on the company’s journey.
“It’s taken 14 years. We expected it to take seven,” he told ABC News. “We’ve had tears, we’ve had joy, we’ve got a fantastic dedicated group of engineers who’ve made it all possible and the brave test pilots.”
A tragic setback occurred in October 2014 when a Virgin Galactic test flight ended catastrophically with the death of pilot Michael Alsbury. Pilot Peter Siebold survived the incident, parachuting to the ground after the aircraft broke up mid-flight at an altitude of about 50,000 feet.
So why the risk? Why are these pilots so determined to get normal citizens into space?
“The more people that see our planet from space the more that we’ll appreciate this place where we’re living and hopefully take better care of it,” said Sturckow.
“I think it’s good for all humanity that we get the most people up there we can.”
Branson echoed the sentiment. He’s heard from many astronauts who have seen the Earth from space and said they come back with a different perspective.
“They view the Earth very differently having been to space and they come back determined to protect this beautiful planet we live on and we are hoping that we can inspire thousands of people in that way.”
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