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Virgin Galactic Plans July 11 Test Flight Of Its Winged Rocket Ship

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This may be the summer of billionaires in space. To kick things off, Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic will launch into space with five others on Sunday in his Unity rocket, which is expected to reach 3,500 miles per hour in eight seconds. Fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has his own plans to launch into space on July 20 with his company Blue Origin. And then, 10 days later, Boeing will test its CST-100 Starliner. Joining us from New Mexico is Richard Branson and Sirisha Bandla. She's the vice president of government affairs for Virgin Galactic and is also headed to space Sunday. Richard and Sirisha, welcome.

RICHARD BRANSON: Oh, thank you for that. I'm sorry about the noise. We're actually in the space factory.

FADEL: So you're in the space factory right now?

BRANSON: Yeah. They're just mating the mother ship and the spaceship together. So I'm afraid there is going to be a little bit of noise behind this.

FADEL: So you both are headed to space on Sunday. How does it feel?

BRANSON: Sirisha, after you.

SIRISHA BANDLA: I keep saying I'm excited because I have no better word. But it is a massive understatement.

BRANSON: Yeah. We're as excited as you could be.

BANDLA: We're very excited.

BRANSON: Like, I feel like a kid myself.

FADEL: Your company was founded as a space tourism company in 2004. And it's 17 years later at this point. Did you expect it to take so long?

BRANSON: No, of course not. We thought that we might be able to do it in six or seven years. But space is very difficult. Rocket science is very difficult. And it's taken 17 years of brave test pilots and 800 engineers to get to a really safe system to take us into space and then, early next year, to start taking members of the public into space.

FADEL: Now, this launch, as well as others expected this month, is likely, really, going to change human spaceflight forever. What does that look like to you?

BANDLA: It's incredible. The mission of Virgin Galactic is, really, to make space available for all. And this is the first step towards that. You mentioned 2004. I actually saw the moment when Richard said that he was going to make a company for people to be able to go to space. And at that moment, I was in a situation where I didn't think I could go to space because I had really bad eyesight. And when I saw Richard, I knew there was a way for me. And we're just one crew of many people that are going to be going to space in the future. And especially - you're going to see a diversity of those people. And I think that impact to the communities and the next generation is just going to be prolific.

FADEL: But with a price tag of $250,000, it's not exactly something the vast majority of people can afford. At some point, do you think commercial space tourism will be something that non-millionaires and billionaires can do?

BRANSON: So air travel in the 1920s was only for rich people. Decade by decade, the price came down. So many people can now afford to fly on airplanes. Exactly the same will happen with space travel. In time, we will be able to bring the price down.

FADEL: For people who aren't going to be up there with you - and I know you haven't been up there yet - but how long will the flight be? What do you expect to see?

BRANSON: I think the whole flight will be around about 1 1/2 hours. What we expect to see is this beautiful Earth that is still beautiful that only 500 other people have ever seen from space. And, hopefully, everybody who goes out will come back absolutely determined to spend the rest of their lives committed to protecting this earth.

FADEL: I wanted to also ask about 2014. You experienced tragedy when your VSS Enterprise space flight test vehicle crashed in the Mojave Desert in California. The pilot was killed. How has that tragedy influenced how you've moved forward?

BRANSON: Well, it wasn't a technical problem. It was pilot error. And now the test pilots are trying to work out what could go wrong in the air that you can't actually work out in a factory. Obviously, our team have made absolutely certain that something like that could never happen again. You know, at the time, you know, we had to decide. Do we press on or don't we? I sat down with 800 engineers. Because we could rectify that particular issue, we pressed on.

FADEL: Now, you've been given approval to start operating commercial passenger flights in 2022. So far, more than 700 people have signed up. How popular do you think this new form of adventure tourism will be in the long run?

BRANSON: It will be enormously popular. I mean, we stopped taking new bookings. We just put people on lists and said we'd get back to them about five years ago. When we open up after our trip, I think we're going to be deluged with people wanting to go to space.

BANDLA: And, Leila, I just wanted to also add that my role on this next flight is to test the researcher experience. And that's another part of the market that's not talked about as much. But, typically, researchers have an experiment. And they'll either fly autonomously to space. Or they'll give it to an astronaut that's part of NASA or another agency. And now we're able to fly the researcher with their own work, which has its own benefits, like real-time observations and adjustments and discoveries, which, I think, is going to have just an amazing impact in the community.

FADEL: You know, Richard, you're beating Jeff Bezos to space by nine days. Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith has said that they wish you well. But since you're not flying above the Karman line, the unofficial marker for where space begins about 62 miles up, it'll be a very different experience. I'm just curious what your reaction is to that.

BRANSON: We don't want to get into sort of a tit for tat with Blue Origin. The actual difference in experience is going to be almost non-existent. I mean, for instance, weightlessness will be about four seconds. So the FAA and NASA have always said that space is over 50 miles. Our next spaceship, we'll go even higher, we think, than Blue Origin's spaceship. So it's sort of - we'll almost have it in terms of pushing each other. And that's a positive thing.

FADEL: And then, for both of you, when did you become interested in space travel?

BANDLA: I've been interested since I was young. Yeah. It's just a dream I never grew out of.

BRANSON: And I was a kid once, standing with my dad and my sister, looking up at the moon, being told that Buzz and Neil were standing on it. And I just thought, I've got to go to space one day. And one of the things that excites me the most is the fact that Virgin Galactic can be an inspiration to a whole generation of kids to do something incredible in their lives.

FADEL: The Unity takes off from Spaceport America in New Mexico on Sunday at 7 a.m. Mountain Time. It will be livestreamed. Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla, thank you for your time. And best of luck to you and your crew.

BANDLA: Thank you.

BRANSON: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGUR ROS' "HOPPIPOLLA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.