Tourism space race: Virgin Galactic plays catch up, announces launch within 'weeks'

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But Virgin Galactic has serious competition in the form of Blue Origin, a space company owned by another billionaire entrepreneur, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos.

But Sir Richard has a long history of underestimating the time it takes his firm to get test flights into the air, and the company has repeatedly missed his lofty targets.

Like all shrewd businessmen, Mr Branson welcomes the competition, but he maintains that Virgin Galactic will beat the others to the punch.

He said Virgin would be taking people into space "not too long after" that. Then, in 2016, the VSS Unity, which replaced the VSS Enterprise, completed its first glide test with flying colors and completed a few more powered flight tests in April and May.

As for the ones to follow in his footsteps, Branson says the $250,000 ticket price is no impediment for those truly desiring to go to the stars. The 42-second burn blasted it to 171,000 feet, almost five times the cruising altitude of a transatlantic passenger plane.

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By the time Michael reaches the Carolinas, it will be a weakening tropical storm. "Storm surge is absolutely deadly", Scott said. Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in more than 20 counties along the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend.

Virgin Galactic now has about 800 passengers on its roster, all of whom have paid around $250,000 (£190,000) for a return trip to space.

Virgin Galactic has its sights set on launching the first-ever commercial space tourism service, with chairman Richard Branson insisting his effort could be up and running in a matter of months.

We'll believe it once we see it; we've heard these sorts of predictions - and gone through a seemingly never-ending stream of failed timelines - many times before. And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years.

Tourists will spend several minutes floating in zero gravity, aboard a spaceship that approaches or passes through the Karman line, the boundary of Earth's atmosphere and space, some 62 miles (100 kilometers) high.

Talking to the BBC at that time, Branson said: "I think we're both neck and neck as to who will put people into space first". Neither company, however, has provided any details of ticket prices. Back in 2014, an early version of the Virgin Galactic spaceship crashed in the Mojave Desert and killed one of the co-pilots.

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