image copyrightVirgin Galactic

A Scottish pilot will be at the centre of Sir Richard Branson's historic trip on board Virgin Galactic's Unity rocket plane to the edge of space.

David Mackay, who grew up in Helmsdale, Sutherland, is chief pilot for the test mission on Sunday.

He first guided a Virgin Galactic space craft to almost 56 miles (90km) above Earth in February 2019.

Now the the 64-year-old wants to make commercial space flights accessible to as many people as possible.

"We are confident that the vast majority of the population of the Earth are capable of going on this space flight," he said.

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Mr Mackay will be one of two pilots and four "mission specialists" – including Sir Richard – who will be on the flight.

The entrepreneur says he wants to evaluate the experience before allowing paying customers aboard next year.

Unity can climb to an altitude of 90km.

Towards the top of the climb, those onboard will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of the curvature of the Earth.

media captionWatch: The carrier plane releases Unity to begin its ascent

Mr Mackay, a graduate of the University of Glasgow, said the view was "burned" into his memory.

"It affected me more than I anticipated – the incredible blackness of space," he said.

"If you think about it, when you're on Earth and are looking horizontally you're looking through a lot of moisture and dust particles and even on a clear day you're still looking through miles and miles of pollution.

"But when you're up in space you're looking directly down… the colours on the ground look incredibly vivid and in contrast to this incredibly dark sky.

"And then on top of all that you see so much of the curvature of the Earth and you get a sense of scale of the planet and you realise it's not very big."

image copyrightVirgin Galacticimage captionMr Mackay and Sir Richard Branson are among a crew of six due to take part in the space trip

For at least a decade, David has enjoyed watching people become awestruck as they gaze upon their home planet for the first time.

But his hopes for commercial space travel extend beyond the spectacle of it all – he hopes it will inspire real change among passengers.

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He said: "It's the remoteness and fragility and our utter dependence on the thinness of the atmosphere.

"I would like to think that some of the outcomes are people will take more care of what they're doing, be much more open minded about who we are all – we're all one human race and we're all sharing this small planet that's so remote.

"There's nothing else practically habitable within reach. We've got to get on together and we've got to look after what we've got."

Earlier this year, Unity took the first of three key test flights that would enable it to enter commercial service.

Sir Richard has some 600 paying customers – including movie and music stars – waiting to take the same ride.

The latest flight, which will take off on Sunday at 14:00 BST, and Virgin Galactic will provide an online stream of the event.

image copyrightVirgin Galacticimage captionUnity's view of the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth

Growing up in the Highlands in the 1960s, Mr Mackay remembers watching Buccaneers from RAF Lossiemouth fly overhead at incredible speeds on an "almost daily basis."

When he watched the moon landings and noticed most astronauts were former military test pilots, his dream of flying to space came within reach.

He took a degree in Aeronautical Engineering at Glasgow University before serving in the RAF for 16 years – but by his early 30s experienced a "dawning realisation" that he may not become an astronaut after all.

"The UK didn't have a human space programme, which was very disappointing to me at the time," he said.

"I had a great time in the air force. I loved it, but I decided to leave. I joined Virgin Atlantic and through that got into Virgin Galactic.

"My message would be never give up on your dreams, you just never know what might happen in life."