Branson is the only one among the group of the so-called space barons, the group of space-loving billionaires that includes Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who has publicly pledged to take a ride in the near future aboard a spacecraft he has bankrolled.
Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, is working on a competing suborbital space tourism rocket. Musk’s SpaceX, however, is focused on transporting astronauts and perhaps one day tourists on days-long missions to Earth’s orbit.
Branson made dozens of media appearances over the past decade touting various deadlines for his extraterrestrial journey that didn’t hold true, in part because building a spacecraft almost always takes longer than expected and because SpaceShipTwo development was hampered by two tragic accidents and — more recently — a pandemic. Virtually every year since 2004 the company has claimed it would be flying customers in a year or so.
On Thursday, however, Virgin Galactic set yet another deadline for Branson’s flight: Sometime between January and March of 2021.
But Colglazier’s message on Thursday made clear that Branson, who turned 70 this year, is still planning to be the poster child for Virgin Galactic’s assertion that almost anyone can safely make the trek.
Is it dangerous?
Proponents of commercialized human spaceflight have long argued that danger — and even tragedy — should not quell humanity’s appetite to travel into space.
Virgin Galactic experienced its first tragedy in 2007 when three people were killed and several others severely injured during a rocket engine test conducted by employees of Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic’s engineering and manufacturing partner.
It sparked steep criticism from aerospace safety experts and led to an investigation from federal authorities, but the company pressed forward.
Ultimately, it was determined that pilot error caused that crash. Virgin Galactic parted ways with Scaled Composites, reorganized its manufacturing business and — within two years — had a new, fully assembled SpaceShipTwo with added safety features.
At least eight more Virgin Galactic employees will fly on SpaceShipTwo before Branson’s flight. The company said it plans to fly another test with only two pilots this fall, and another trip with two pilots and four test passengers will take off in early 2021. All that will aim to get a seal of approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, certifying SpaceShipTwo for commercial operation.
Branson will be on the next flight after that.
It remains unclear if Virgin Galactic’s business model — or any space tourism business — can be made into a successful and sustainable money-making enterprise. But Virgin Galactic executives have acknowledged for years that its success or failure will hinge on whether or not the company convinces the general public that the trip can be not just safe, but worth the hefty per-seat price tag.