Tourism space race: Virgin Galactic will announce launch within weeks

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson speaks at a news conference on March 30 in Las Vegas

Virgin Galactic will take its first trip into space within weeks according to Richard Branson, the firm's billionaire chief and founder.

When asked about consumer demand for space travel, he told CNBC: "I think the market for people who would love to become astronauts and go to space is big". Branson told the New Yorker earlier this year, but he says: "If you are an optimist and you talk ahead of yourself, then everybody around you has got to catch up and try to get there".

Richard Branson has warned space race rival Elon Musk that he must "learn the art of delegation" and "get some sleep" if he is to avoid further controversy. The original expected launch date was April 2018.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4's You and Yours programme, Sir Richard said he was receiving astronaut, centrifuge and fitness training. His training includes extensive tennis and cycling.

The Virgin founder revealed this week that his company is just weeks away from its first test flight beyond orbit, with manned missions planned "not too long after". The next phase of testing will see the rockets test their endurance and range, hopefully soon reaching the limits of space.

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Virgin Galactic is "neck and neck" with Blue Origin, run by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, to provide the first commercial spaceflight, Branson said in May. In the most recent test in July, the space plane was released from its jet-powered carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, at 46,500 feet before the Unity's pilots lit its rocket.

"If I have a room full of 10 people, eight out of 10 would love to go to space if they could afford it", he said.

CEO George Whitesides told the Albuquerque Journal this August that while the company no longer gives a timeline for when commercial operations might begin, he said its long-anticipated move to New Mexico was drawing near. Neither company, however, has provided any details of ticket prices.

Virgin Galactic has announced that its spacecraft will lift the space tourists to 68 miles (109 km) above the Earth's surface at a price of $ 250,000 per ticket.

The company plans to conduct several more supersonic test flights this year. "I love life, I love people, I love learning, and I love the variety of what I do", said the man who describes himself on his Twitter profile as a "tie-loathing adventurer, philanthropist and troublemaker who believes in turning ideas into reality".

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