Sir Richard Branson has vowed to beat Jeff Bezos to space, confirming plans to bring forward his first trip aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceship to July 11.
After almost two decades of research and testing by the two men’s companies, Branson’s flight would beat his billionaire rival’s inaugural mission by just nine days.
“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” Branson said in the statement.
“After 17 years of research, engineering and innovation, the new commercial space industry is poised to open the universe to humankind and change the world for good.”
Shares in Virgin Galactic lept 25 per cent in after-hours trading. Its ship, SpaceShipTwo Unity, has made three test runs to space in the past, most recently in May.
Last week the company was granted the go-ahead by the US Federal Aviation Authority to put paying members of the public on board, paving the way for Branson’s long-awaited flight.
Branson’s trip will be one of three further tests it plans to run before it starts carrying paying passengers in its six-seat craft.
A spokeswoman for Blue Origin did not respond to requests for comments on Branson’s revised timetable. Its flight is scheduled to take place on July 20, launching from a site in west Texas.
On board will be Bezos and his younger brother Mark, as well as a not yet revealed winning bidder of a third seat which sold at auction last month for $28m.
Earlier on Thursday Blue Origin announced that the fourth and final passenger on board its flight would be 82-year-old Wally Funk, an American aviator who had been part of a controversially abandoned 1961 programme to send women to space.
The scheme, nicknamed Mercury 13, involved putting the women through the same physiological and psychological screening tests as the male astronauts.
The programme was subsequently cancelled by the US government, which forbade the use of military equipment to train the women. Astronaut John Glenn, the third American in space, said sending women to space risked affecting the “social order”.
Funk, who at 22 had been the youngest of the Mercury 13 crew, is now set to become the oldest person to travel to space. She had previously put down $200,000 to buy a ticket to ride on Virgin Galactic’s craft, The Washington Post reported on Thursday.
“I didn’t think I’d ever get to go up,” she said in a video message posted on social media.
Asked by Bezos what she planned to say once the Blue Origin craft touches down in the west Texas desert, Funk replied: “I will say, ‘Honey, that’s the best thing that ever happened to me!’”