Billionaire 'space race' brews as Richard Branson and Elon Musk take aim at the heavens
A new "space race" of sorts is brewing - a battle of the billionaires.
In one corner: Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX has been making headlines with its reusable rockets, as well as recently announced plans to take people around the moon.
But there's another private business competing for a slice of the heavens above us: Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
Branson has been tight-lipped about his foray into space in recent times, as Virgin Galactic has been marred by technical and other difficulties, as well as the fatal crash of its SpaceShipTwo in California's Mojave Desert in October, 2014.
Despite the idea of the company proving popular with future travellers - some 500 potential customers have spent US$250,000 (about NZ$356,000) on reserving their spot on one of its trips - it is perhaps the one business Branson has found the hardest to get off the ground.
After the crash, Branson said his dream of space travel may have ended.
But Galactic, under boss and former NASA chief of staff George Whitesides, has regrouped, redoubled its focus on safety, and appears to be making progress.
Last August it received its first operating licence from the US Federal Aviation Authority, subject to a series of conditions, including the regulator verifying testing results before any passengers can board its SpaceShipTwo - designed to hold two pilots and six passengers - which will be carried by launch craft White Knight Two 62 miles into the sky.
"The test programme is going really well, and as long as we've got our brave test pilots pushing it to the limit we think that after whatever it is, 12 years of hard work, we're nearly there," Branson told The Daily Telegraph.
When exactly will he be nearly there? After all, Branson himself - and some of his family - have committed to being on the first flight.
"Well, we stopped giving dates," he confesses.
"But I think I'd be very disappointed if we're not into space with a test flight by the end of the year and I'm not into space myself next year and the programme isn't well underway by the end of next year."
At the end of February, Musk's SpaceX announced its own ambitious plans for the final frontier.
The Hawthorne space company revealed two individuals had "paid a significant deposit" for a moon mission.
"This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years and they will travel faster and further into the Solar System than any before them," the company said in a statement at the time.
"Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration."
The space gauntlet has been thrown down, with two billionaires competing to break into the burgeoning galactic travel market. Time will tell if they're both successful.
- Stuff and The Daily Telegraph