Virgin Galactic to be in space 'in weeks,' owner Branson says

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

Tesla CEO Elon Musk's firm SpaceX, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin are all vying to be the first companies to send up the first commercial space flight.

Virgin Galactic's disaster-struck space tourism programme is apparently nearing final launch readiness, with Branson telling United States news site CNBC that: "We should be in space within weeks, not months". And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years.

Branson has invested in space travel since 2004, and had initially expected to fly into to space himself sometime this year.

"So we have got a very, very exciting couple of months ahead,"he said".

Meanwhile, another insurgent private space company, Blue Origin, founded by entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, just won the contract to provide its BE-4 engines to the behemoth United Launch Alliance. 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.

Branson has had astronaut, fitness and centrifuge training to prepare himself for his trip into space.

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"I think the market for people who would love to become astronauts and go to space is big".

Currently, some 700 people are on Virgin Galactic's waiting list (to the tune of US$250,000 (NZ$385,157) a ticket) for the company's first commercial flights, whenever they might be.

Sir Richard conceded earlier this year that the number of spurious claims he has made about Virgin Galactic flight dates was "embarrassing".

The company first promised sub-orbital spaceflight trips for tourists by the start of 2009. Its main focus is on private touristic space travel from a spaceport in New Mexico, but it is also laying the bureaucratic groundwork to launch both research and private missions from Italy.

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 very big. And it is up to us to produce as many spaceships as we can to cater to that demand", he added.

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