virgin galactic, space tourism, richard branson

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have emerged as the two leaders in the race to launch a commercial service for sub-orbital space tourism flights.

But while Blue Origin edges toward the launch of its own service following two successful crewed flights in three months, Virgin Galactic has revealed it is delaying its own commercial launch from the middle of next year to the final quarter of 2022.

The company founded by billionaire businessman Richard Branson is about to embark on an “enhancement program” to improve the vehicle performance and flight-rate capability of the two vehicles at the center of its flights, the VSS Unity spacecraft and the VMS Eve carrier aircraft.

In an apparent setback for Virgin Galactic, the company said that a recent laboratory-based test “flagged a possible reduction in the strength margins of certain materials used to modify specific joints, and this requires further physical inspection.”

It added that while its vehicles are designed to withstand forces much greater than those experienced during flight, its test flight protocols “have clearly defined strength margins, and further analysis will assess whether any additional work is required to keep them at or above established levels.”

Once all of the necessary checks and enhancements have been carried out, Virgin Galactic will be ready to conduct its next test flight — Unity 23 — probably in mid-2022.

Safety is always at the top of the list for such space-based endeavors, but Virgin Galactic faces extra scrutiny following the loss of a test pilot in a crash during a flight in 2014.

After making significant improvements to its spacecraft and performing numerous test flights over the last few years, the company flew Richard Branson to the edge of space in July.

Amazon founder Bezos rode his own rocket to the edge of space in Blue Origin’s first crewed launch just a few weeks later, and earlier this week the company blasted William Shatner skyward, with the 90-year-old Star Trek icon becoming the oldest person ever to make such a trip.

Virgin Galactic is already taking bookings for space tourism trips, charging $450,000 per seat, a massive increase on the $250,000 asking price during an earlier phase of ticket sales.

Blue Origin is allowing people to put their name down for a flight on its rocket, but hasn’t revealed how much they will have to pay for the 10-minute trip of a lifetime.

Critics have accused both Bezos and Branson of wasting money on what they see as a pointless endeavor for the super-rich, though both men claim their efforts will inspire young engineers and ultimately help to create technology that can solve problems on Earth.

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