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Virgin Galactic will launch its first fully manned flight on 11 July including founder Richard Branson, who will enter space just over a week before fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos. 

The next test flight of the firm’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity will see Branson trying out the private astronaut experience that Virgin Galactic eventually plans to sell to rich space tourists at a price of around £175,000 per ticket.

It will be the twenty-second flight test for the ship and its fourth crewed spaceflight, although the first to carry a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists in the cabin.

The flight is designed specifically for Branson and his crew to evaluate the commercial experience, including the cabin environment, seat comfort, the weightlessness, as well as the views of Earth that the spaceship delivers.

Following this flight the team plans to complete inspections of the vehicles and an extensive data review, which will inform the next steps in the test flight programme. Two additional test flights are planned before Galactic’s expected commencement of a commercial service in 2022. 

Sir Richard Branson said: “I truly believe that space belongs to all of us. 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.

“It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality.

“As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honoured to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.”

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is also planning a trip to space on 20 July with his brother Mark as a passenger on the first crewed flight of New Shepard. Like Virgin Galactic, his space firm Blue Origin ultimately plans to have a space tourist option, with tickets costing around $200,000 to $300,000.

Virgin Galactic only received approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration last week following a successful test flight in May. There has been caution around the firm’s safety procedures following a test flight crash in 2014 that killed one of the pilots. IET Sites

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