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Virgin Galactic to reach space ‘within weeks’, Branson boasts

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Richard Branson, founder and CEO of Virgin Group, has commented that the group’s space travel branch will launch into space “within weeks, not months”.

“We should be in space within weeks, not months,” he said, speaking to CNBC at the Barclays Asia Forum in Singapore this week. “And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years.”

He added that Virgin Galactic was “more than tantalisingly close” to its first trip to space, and that there were a “very, very exciting couple of months ahead”. However, Branson had also previously estimated in October 2017 that he could be travelling into space himself on a Virgin Galactic service within six months.

Branson said that a majority of people would “love to go to space if they could afford it”, and it was up to the company to provide as many opportunities for private spaceflight as possible. A single, private trip to space will cost an estimated $250,000 (£190,000), although Branson commented that he would like to see this price call to $40,000-50,000 (£30,400-£38,000) within a decade.

The British entrepreneur has been investing in space travel – with an eye on the possibility of space tourism – since 2004 with the founding of Virgin Galactic. The company has developed SpaceShipTwo as its vehicle for space tourism, but suffered a setback in October 2014 when the first SpaceShipTwo disintegrated during flight and crashed in the Mojave desert, killing a pilot.

In April 2018, the company completed its first supersonic, rocket-powered flight with SpaceShipTwo, with the spacecraft reaching an altitude of 25km, then descending and landing smoothly. Branson commented then that space was “tantalizingly close now”.

Speaking to the BBC in May 2018, Branson commented that despite the efforts of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, he was in a tightly-fought commercial space race with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. In 2000, Bezos founded Blue Origin, an aerospace and space services company aiming to lower the cost of spaceflight to enable private space tourism.

Meanwhile, Virgin Hyperloop One has announced that it has received government approval to begin construction on the first commercial hyperloop track in 2019 in India, where it will reach 150km between Mumbai and Pune. Hyperloop is a proposed form of transportation which involves accelerating pods containing vehicles, cargo or passengers through a tube containing a near-vacuum at aircraft speed, significantly lowering journey times. The proposed Mumbai-Pune hyperloop could – if all goes according to plan – cut a five-hour car journey to just over half an hour, and Branson has said that the cost of the journey will be no more expensive than a high-speed train ticket.

Critics have said that safety, logistical, technological, regulatory and economic complications associated with hyperloops are insurmountable in the near future.

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