Of all the billionaires clamouring to get to space, Sir Richard Branson, 70, might be the first.
A former Nasa astronaut has branded the Virgin Galactic mission “hard to understand”; his wife has said she “won’t be going to his funeral” – this week too, his Amazon founder rival Jeff Bezos’s rocket company this week mocked the paltry ‘airplane-sized’ windows on his vessel.
So how does the man himself feel ahead of take-off? “I’m a pretty fearless person and in this case I’m far more excited than worried,” he tells me over the phone from the desert in New Mexico, where he is undergoing the last of his intensive training at Spaceport America.
From there, SpaceShipTwo will travel 50,000ft beyond the Earth’s surface (weather-permitting) to undertake the historic 90-minute voyage.
Virgin Galactic Unity22 crew with founder Richard Branson
“We’ve spent 17 years working on this project, with astounding input from nearly 1,000 engineers and brave test pilots,” he says.
“We had an absolutely flawless flight six weeks ago and I expect a flawless flight [today].”
The event will be livestreamed, “so people can join me, if only virtually, for some pre-football fun,” he says.
Sir Richard will be strapped into a slick seat along with five crew members, three men and two women, primarily to test the ‘customer experience’ on offer to the 700 ticket-holders who have already paid between $200,000 (£145,000) and $250,000 for the privilege; Leonardo DiCaprio and Angelina Jolie are rumoured to be among them.
Given the British mogul recently wrote of his 76 near-death experiences – from boating and hot air balloon calamities to riding his bicycle off a cliff in the Caribbean – he is untroubled by the potential danger as “I got the risky adventures over with when I was younger”.
That’s not to say it isn’t there: in 2014 Michael Tyner Alsbury, a co-pilot, died during a test flight.
The Virgin Galatic spacecraft
Sir Richard has been priming himself for the mission for several years by upping his fitness with tennis sessions four times a day, and training in a centrifuge.
Following being granted a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) license last week to take customers to space, “we could be doing it right away,” he explains.
“But I’d like to do a couple more flights so we can fine-tune the experience before our first paying customers follow me early next year. It’s the little things that make a big difference with Virgin Atlantic, and this will be no different.
"For example, it has come to my attention that once you’ve got the parachute on, the spacesuit is such that you can’t take a pee. I’d like to change that.”
Having been on a flight with him from London to Johannesburg, I can confirm that Sir Richard still carries a notebook with him every time he flies to record observations on the service, and routinely pops his head into economy to ask passengers how things can be improved.
Richard Branson said his team wear blue spacesuits because red is 'banned' inside a spacecraft
With this in mind, I ask him why Virgin Galactic’s spacesuits are blue, rather than on-brand red. “I don’t know why, but red is banned inside a spaceship,” he states.
“Yesterday, when I was brainstorming with the team, I said I wanted to put little red tags on the backs of the seats so you can find your way back when you’re floating around, and I was told no, red is not allowed.”
Design flourishes aside, Sir Richard’s trip has yet again reignited the much-hyped ‘space race’ between he and Bezos, the richest man on the planet – who, if today goes to plan – he will beat to the intergalactic punch by just nine days.
The Amazon founder plans to launch beyond the stratosphere with his rocket company, Blue Origin, with his brother on July 20, 22 years first after embarking on the plan.
‘It’s not a race’
Will Sir Richard admit to being smug about taking pole position? “It would be dangerous to call it a race,” he retorts of the attempts of Bezos, who he knows.
“Yes, we happen to be taking off a few days before him, but it’s not a race. I’ve given up telling people that I don’t see it as a race.”
The same goes for Tesla founder Elon Musk, another of his space travel competitors, who has claimed he wishes “to die on Mars”.
‘I’d like to take my last breath on Earth’
“I’d like to take my last breath on Earth,” Sir Richard says as if to put further distance between them, adding that he hopes to make it to 90 or 100.
“Looking at the bigger picture, space is monumentally important for humankind – we wouldn’t be talking now if it wasn’t for satellites,” he says of why ‘space race’ talk is overblown.
“As we speak, there are scientists harnessing solar energy on other planets, connecting billions of people around the world, monitoring fires and the degradation of rainforests. The possibilities are endless.”
While he thinks that humans “will definitely populate other planets”, possibly in his grandchildrens’ lifetime, Sir Richard thinks that, on emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, “We need to make sure we reverse some of the negatives here first, and get the world back on track again. But I don’t think we need to leave,” he says of his temporary hiatus from Earth.
“Our own planet is extraordinary.”