Billionaire Richard Branson really, really wants you to believe he’s going to send people to space—and soon. In a new interview with CNN, the Virgin Group founder now says he’s “reasonably confident” his spaceflight company can beat out competitors like Blue Origin and SpaceX with crewed trips to space before Christmas.
Pointing to Branson’s long-touted plans to send humans to space—and specifically addressing the gap between 2007, when Branson originally said that Virgin Galactic would send people to space, and now—CNN’s Rachel Crane asked how badly Branson wanted to “prove [his] critics wrong.”
“Space is difficult. Rocket science is rocket science. This has taken us 14 long years, and it’s taken Jeff Bezos 14 long years,” Branson said, referencing the Amazon CEO’s private spaceflight company Blue Origin, which plans to begin selling tickets for suborbital flights next year.
As Crane noted, Virgin Galactic has a track record of promising that the company is close to transporting people to space only to fall short. And that was even before the company’s ambitious plans were derailed by the VSS Enterprise test flight crash in 2014 that killed a pilot and injured a co-pilot. Notably, it was only this year that Virgin Galactic resumed crewed test flights with its new SpaceShipTwo aircraft. Still, Branson said that he is “reasonably confident that before Christmas we will [send people to space].”
According to CNN, test pilots will be the first to make the trip to space with Virgin Galactic, though Branson plans to take the trip himself as its first passenger. (His children will likely follow as among the first passengers to travel with Virgin Galactic to space, he said.) But Branson told CNN he wasn’t “allowed up until the [test pilots] have broken it in a few times, first.” According to CNN:
SpaceShipTwo, Galactic’s rocket-powered plane, will fly into space after it detaches from beneath the wing of a mothership. It has been thoroughly tested on the ground and at lower altitudes, Branson said. But, the first few flights to space will be “the dangerous ones.”
The pilots will fly the space plane at at [sic] 2,300 miles per hour, accelerating to top speed in about eight seconds, Branson said.
If Virgin Galactic is indeed able to meet what seems at present to be an extraordinary deadline, CNN noted that it will beat out the space ambitions of both Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the latter of which is currently preparing for an unpiloted SpaceX Crew Dragon test flight in January ahead of a targeted crewed mission in June.
While Branson noted that safety is paramount when sending people into space, he added: “Virgin Galactic will be the first.”