For a showman like Richard Branson his space voyage is more than a publicity stunt

Richard Branson’s moment of destiny in space will happen 50 miles above a town called Truth or Consequences.

In the high desert of New Mexico, a dream that was born when Branson watched the moon landing two days after his 19th birthday will, he hopes, finally be realised.

It has been a long journey for the billionaire, and this vertical journey will take place more than a decade after he had originally envisaged it happening.

That seems irrelevant now as – hours before England’s footballers hope to make history at Wembley – Branson expects to reach his own pinnacle as the first billionaire space tourism tycoon to become an astronaut.

His wife and family will be there to watch.

Virgin Galactic: The private space race explained as Richard Branson prepares for take-off

Virgin Galactic: The private space race explained as Richard Branson prepares for take-off

Hours before take-off, it was somewhat humbling to stand under the rocket of his space ship Unity.

Slung beneath its mothership, the small plane-like craft almost looks too flimsy for the mission.

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In the air-conditioned cool of the Spaceport America hangar, the final touches were being added before take-off in the blistering heat just after dawn.

Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane, the VSS Unity near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico
Image:Virgin Galactic’s passenger rocket plane, the VSS Unity, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico

Two pilots, three mission specialists and one tycoon will shoot vertically at three times the speed of sound for a few minutes of zero gravity, an unrivalled view of the earth and an equally rapid start to their descent.

All being well they will glide back to the runway.

Branson will beat Amazon founder Jeff Bezos into space by nine days and few can really believe his claim that winning the race doesn’t matter to him.

Branson and his team of fellow astronauts. Pic: AP
Image:Branson and his team of fellow astronauts. Pic: AP

Bezos’s Blue Origin team have raised questions about whether Branson will actually reach space at all.

They subscribe to the view of some that 62 miles up is the real deal, while Branson is happy to take NASA‘s judgment that an altitude of 50 miles makes an astronaut.

But for a lifelong showman like Branson this is more than a mere publicity stunt or even a realisation of that childhood dream.

Taking a seat aboard will send a message to the hundreds who have put down tens of thousands of pounds to secure a seat that their journey will happen and will be safe.

Virgin's Unity spaceship. Pic: AP
Image:Virgin’s Unity spaceship. Pic: AP

No one can discount the risks. Seven years ago a pilot died when one of Unity’s predecessors broke up during a test flight. Space, as they always say, is hard.

For Branson this is as much about business as any high ideals of opening space up to the rest of us.

You still have to be very rich to even dream of joining any of the commercial missions.

And there is no denying that a successful mission for Branson will signify a new era in space travel.

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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