- Richard Branson said his flight up to space on VSS Unity will be 'the most extraordinary trip of my lifetime'
- Branson will fly on Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity, taking off on Sunday from Spaceport America in New Mexico
- The 70-year-old will test the 'private astronaut experience' on his July 11 flight to ensure 'quality of service'
- He is launching on the next test flight, the first of a final run of three this year before commercial operations
- He said it would 'ensure his business delivers a unique customer experience' to the future astronautsSir Richard Branson will fly to the edge of space on a spaceplane built by his own company on Sunday, declaring it is 'time to turn my dream into reality,' as he takes to the stars nine days before rival Jeff Bezos.
He will travel on VSS Unity, which will launch from mothership VMS Eve on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The extraordinary trip is one week before his 71st birthday, and he will be joined by five others on what has been dubbed the Unit 22 test flight - as it is the 22nd test flight for the spaceplane.
The British billionaire will launch on the first of the three test flights carrying a full complement of 'astronauts' in the cabin, before they begin flying the first of 600 'future astronaut' ticket holders in 2022.
Branson is Astronaut 001 and will travel with Chief Astronaut Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003) and VP of Government Affairs Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004) in the cabin.
Meanwhile, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos will launch to the edge of space on the New Shepherd rocket on July 20 - the 52nd anniversary of the first moon landing.
Branson denied that he and Bezos were in a 'battle of the billionaire space founders' to see who would go up first, despite changing from the second to the first VSS Unity test flight in order to go up before Bezos.
'I just wish him and people going up with him all the very best,' he said, adding he 'looks forward to talking to him about his ride when he comes back.'
Once it reaches 50,000 feet the carrier plane releases Unity, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.
Once released Unity's rocket motor engages 'within seconds', according to Virgin Galactic.
The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth's surface.
'I've always been a dreamer. My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars,' said Branson.
There are dozens of 'founder astronauts' who purchased a ticket to travel to space in the first years after the firm was formed who will be at the launch on Sunday.
Among them is Namira Salim, who hopes to launch early next year. She has been waiting 15 years to launch, and become the first person from Pakistan in space.
Salim has been an active ambassador for space as the new frontier for peace, and says she can't wait to watch the launch on Sunday, and then go up herself.
Branson said he was going into space to 'test the customer experience' from start to finish, to ensure that those paying to go up get the best possible experience.
It will be the fourth crewed flight of VSS Unity and only the second to include passengers in the cabin, the first saw Beth Moses go up in February 2019.
The news that Branson would go up on this flight came soon after the FCC granted Virgin Galactic a change to their operator licence that allowed them to take paying travellers up to the edge of space.
'After a successful flight in late May and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for a Full Commercial Launch Licence, the pathway towards commercial launch is clear,' Branson said.
'When we return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people the chance to become an astronaut. Because space belongs to us all. So watch this space,' said Branson in a blog post before the launch.
This will be the first of three final flights required to test all aspects of the cabin and passenger experience, with Branson saying he got 'truly excited' when the final safety checks cam through and he was asked if he wanted to go into space
'I've been looking forward to this for 17 years,' Branson said 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 Sunday's scheduled launch, which will be taking place one week before his 71st birthday. 'Every bit about it is a pinch-me moment,' he added.
For the first flight that included someone in the cabin, Chief Astronaut Beth Moses went up into space alone, only accompanied by the two pilots in the cockpit.
This will be the first flight to carry a full complement of space travellers, consisting of Branson, two pilots and three mission specialists, who are all members of the Virgin Galactic management team.
Branson has been styled as Astronaut 001 for the first full-cabin flight, although it isn't clear whether this numbering scheme will continue after paying passengers start going into space.
He will travel with Virgin Galactic Chief Astronaut Beth Moses (Astronaut 002), Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett (Astronaut 003) and Vice President of Government Affairs Sirisha Bandla (Astronaut 004). They will fly along with pilots David Mackay, Michael Masucci up front of the VSS Unity spaceship.
'We are at the vanguard of a new industry determined to pioneer twenty-first century spacecraft, which will open space to everybody — and change the world for good,' Branson declared.
In a blog post on the run up to the flight, Branson wrote: 'It's one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it's another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality. 'As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I'm honoured to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.'
Virgin Galactic said the aim of the upcoming flight will be to evaluate the commercial customer cabin to test the environment, seat comfort, weightless experience and view of the Earth from space.
This is 'all to ensure every moment of the astronaut's journey maximises the wonder and awe created by space travel,' the firm wrote.
They are also demonstrating the conditions for conducting human-tended research experiments, a new area of business opened up for the space firm.
The crew will also work to confirm the training program at Spaceport America supports the spaceflight experience, before customers go up.
Unlike previous test flights, where footage was shared after the event, this flight will be streamed live.
'Audiences around the world are invited to participate virtually in the Unity 22 test flight and see first-hand the extraordinary experience Virgin Galactic is creating for future astronauts,' the firm wrote.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, along with Elon Musk's SpaceX, are competing head-to-head in the emerging space tourism business.
The first of the two will be directly competing to take paying passengers to the edge of space in a sub-orbital flight, allowing them to earn their astronaut wings.
They will also be competing to send science payloads and researchers up so they can test their experiments while in a low gravity environment.
Branson denied he and Bezos were in a contest to see who would go up first.
'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.
Virgin has said two additional test flights of its vehicle after the one on July 11 are planned before the company begins commercial service in 2022.
This will include another full cabin experience test, as well as a flight taking up a crew from the Italian airforce.
Branson said he anticipates offering paid flights on a 'regular basis' next year, which will come as a relief for the 600 'future astronaut' ticket holders who have waited over a decade for the opportunity to go into space.
Salim, one of the earliest future astronaut ticket holders, wished Sir Richard Branson good luck. She said the firm was helping to fulfil her childhood dream of going into space, first formed as a little girl from Pakistan.
'I wish you all the very best in skyrocketing as the first private spaceline in the world. Richard you have delivered your promise and you are our ace of space,' she said.
Branson 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.
Michael Colglazier, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Galactic, said the 22nd flight test for VSS Unity is a 'testament to the dedication and technical brilliance of our entire team'.
'I'd like to extend a special thank you to our pilots and mission specialists, each of whom will be performing important work,' he added.
'Tapping into Sir Richard's expertise and long history of creating amazing customer experiences will be invaluable as we work to open the wonder of space travel and create awe-inspiring journeys for our customers.'