As Virgin Galactic finalises plans for founder Richard Branson to join five others on a test flight to the edge of space on July 11 US time, the British billionaire said his wife may be nervous about the launch but he himself wasn't the least bit afraid.
"I've been looking forward to this for 17 years," Branson said in an interview from Spaceport America near the remote town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
He said pre-flight preparations only add to the excitement ahead of the Sunday US time scheduled launch, which will be taking place one week before his 71st birthday.
"Every bit about it is a pinch-me moment," he said.
The launch of Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity rocket plane over the desert will mark the space tourism company's fourth crewed test mission beyond Earth's atmosphere. But it will be the first to carry a full complement of space travellers, consisting of Branson, two pilots and three mission specialists.
Unity will be launched at an altitude of about 50,000 feet from a Virgin Galactic carrier plane, then soar on its own rocket power to the boundary of space, where the crew will experience about 4 minutes of weightlessness before beginning a descent back to Earth.
The trip is not without the inherent hazards of spaceflight. An earlier prototype of the rocket plane crashed during a 2014 test flight over California's Mojave Desert, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.
Asked how his family reacted to the news last week that he would join the crew, Branson said his children - adventurous like him - were excited, but suggested his wife, Joan, while supportive, was more wary.
"My wife is the sort of person who would be terrified on a Virgin Atlantic airplane," he said. "She's the last person who would want to do something like this. But she's known me since I tried to balloon across the Atlantic or the Pacific or around the world, and she still seems to love us."
He laughed as he quoted his wife telling him: "'If you're foolish enough to do these wonderful things, you can do it, but I won't be going to your funeral.'"
By joining the flight on July 11, US time, Branson has positioned himself to beat rival entrepreneur Jeff Bezos into space by nine days.
Bezos, founder of the retail giant Amazon.com, will be on board the suborbital flight of the New Shepard spacecraft of his own private rocket company, Blue Origin, on July 20, US time.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, along with Elon Musk's SpaceX, are competing head-to-head in the emerging space tourism business. read more
Branson denied he and Bezos were in a contest to see who would go up first, however.
"I just wish him and people going up with him all the very best. I look forward to talking to him about his ride when he comes back," Branson said of Bezos. "I spoke to him two or three weeks ago, and we both wished each other well."
Success for both ventures is considered key to fostering a burgeoning industry that aims to eventually make space tourism mainstream, at least for high-paying customers.
Virgin has said two additional test flights of its vehicle are planned before the company begins commercial service in 2022, and Branson said he anticipates offering paid flights on a "regular basis" next year.
He also said he was confident there was plenty of room in the market for his venture and Bezos' company to compete.
"Neither of us are going to be able to build enough spaceships to satisfy the demand," Branson said.
Three billionaire entrepreneurs - Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson - are each vying to usher in a new era of private commercial space travel.
Here is how their rival ventures compare in the race to open up space travel.
Bezos, Branson and Musk have been investing billions of dollars in their space startups, each promising to ferry paying customers on rides to space - and it will cost a pretty penny to be part of it.
Branson's Virgin Galactic is reported to have more than 600 ticket reservations already, priced around US$250,000. It expects to begin a full commercial service in 2022 and eventually hopes to slash the ticket price to around US$40,000.
Reuters reported in 2018 that Bezos' Blue Origin was planning to charge passengers at least US$200,000 for the ride, based on an appraisal of Branson's rival plans and other considerations, though its thinking may have changed. Blue has not divulged its long-term pricing plans.
An as-yet unidentified person secured one of the seats on Blue's first suborbital mission, slated for July 20, with a US$28 million auction bid.
Musk's SpaceX has already taken a crew to the International Space Station, and the company has plans to send an all-civilian crew into orbit in September. Musk has also said SpaceX will fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon with its forthcoming Starship rocket in 2023. read more
Virgin Galactic's reusable SpaceShipTwo system will see its VSS Unity spaceplane lifted to altitude by a large carrier aircraft called VMS Eve before separating.
Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket-and-capsule combo shoots into suborbital space before separating. The rocket section returns to the launchpad, with the pressurised capsule falls back to earth under parachutes. It features six observation windows - the largest ever used in space.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule sits atop a reusable Falcon rocket which it uses to reach space.
CREW AND PASSENGERS
Virgin Galactic's spaceplane can hold six passengers: two crew and four passengers.
Blue Origin's craft can take six passengers and flies autonomously.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule is capable of carrying up to seven people.
Virgin Galactic boasts a flight time of around 90 minutes from take-off to landing, including several minutes of weightlessness.
Blue Origin's capsule suborbital flight is around 10 minutes after separation. Again, those on board experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet before returning to Earth.
The SpaceX missions are expected to last three to four days from launch to splashdown.
Typical of Branson's ventures, Virgin Galactic is publicly funded. Its shares peaked at almost US$60 following FAA approval in June 2021.
Blue Origin is privately owned, with Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos previously indicating he would sell around US$1 billion in Amazon stock annually to fund the venture.
SpaceX is also privately owned and has raised billions of dollars in successive funding rounds. Key investors include Alphabet and Fidelity. Musk says fees charged for SpaceX's charter flights will go toward missions to the moon and eventually Mars.