Elon Musk is set to take a giant leap ahead of Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson in the billionaires’ battle to open up space for tourism.
Mr Bezos and Sir Richard recently launched themselves into zero gravity on suborbital “hops” lasting less than an hour.
But Mr Musk will top them this week by sending the world’s first all-civilian crew into full orbit.
The SpaceX founder will not be going himself, but in a major milestone for space tourism, four private citizens will board the Inspiration4 mission.
It is expected to blast off From Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as early as Wednesday.
A Crew Dragon spacecraft, launched on a Falcon 9 rocket, will travel around the Earth for three days.
It will orbit higher than the 254-mile altitude of the International Space Station, before a splashdown in the Atlantic.
In July, Sir Richard, on his Virgin Galactic rocket plane, went above 50 miles, which is regarded as space by the US Federal Aviation Administration.
But he was short of the Karman line, the internationally recognised boundary of space, 62 miles up.
A few weeks later Mr Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, went just beyond the Karman line.
The SpaceX mission will be fully automated and a special dome window has been fitted to the spacecraft to give passengers incredible views of the Earth.
The trip is being paid for by billionaire Jared Isaacman, 38, founder of money-processing company Shift4 Payments, who will be on board.
Neither SpaceX nor Mr Isaacman have said how much he is paying, but figures of up to $200 million have been estimated.
Mr Isaacman has said he hopes to use the mission to raise an additional $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, pledging the first $100 million himself.
A large proportion of the rest will be raised by auctioning items the crew take into space.
Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Hayley Arceneaux and Chris Sembroski will all be aboard the SpaceX rocket
Among the other astronauts will be Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a survivor of childhood bone cancer, who is now a physician’s assistant at St. Jude.
Ms Arceneaux will be the first person with a prosthetic body part – she has an internal prosthesis in her leg – to go into space.
Also on the crew are Sian Proctor, who won a contest for a ticket, and Chris Sembroski, 42, a data engineer who got his seat in a charity raffle.
The crew will be taking with them items to auction for St. Jude including 66 pounds of hops, which will be made into beer by the Samuel Adams brewery upon their return.
Other items will include a ukulele, which will be played in space, and a copy of Time magazine.
During training, which has included rides in a centrifuge, the astronauts have been followed by a reality television crew for a show on Netflix.
The mission will take off from launchpad 39A, the same one used by the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
Early in the process Mr Isaacman spent millions of dollars on a 30-second TV advert during the Super Bowl launching contests for people who wanted to be on the flight.
He has said he understands many will see the trip as a “billionaire going on a joyride.”
But he said: “We’re not going to go up with a bunch of fishing buddies.
”We’re not going to do this if we can’t make a huge difference for the problems the world’s faced with today. We gravitated right to St Jude.“
On Sept 6, you’ll meet the four civilians going into space.
On Sept 13, you’ll see them prepare.
On Sept 15, you’ll watch the live launch
On Sept 30, you’ll be in space alongside them
Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission To Space takes off next week pic.twitter.com/prr0RDZSXc
— Netflix (@netflix) September 2, 2021
The mission marked the latest development in an escalating, and increasingly bitter, rivalry between Mr Musk and Mr Bezos, two of the world’s richest men.
Recently, they have clashed over a Nasa contract to land astronauts on the moon, who gets to use the historic launchpad 39A, and over their competing plans for constellations of satellites to provide internet service.
Last week, in a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, Mr Bezos’s company Amazon said: "The conduct of SpaceX and other Musk-led companies makes their view plain: rules are for other people.
“And those who insist upon, or even simply request compliance, are deserving of derision and ad hominem attacks.”
SpaceX responded by accusing Amazon of using “theatrics” and “gamesmanship”.
It said: “Another week, another objection from Amazon against a competitor, yet still no sign of progress on Amazon’s own long-rumoured satellite system.”
Turns out Besos retired in order to pursue a full-time job filing lawsuits against SpaceX …
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 27, 2021
Mr Musk recently said that Mr Bezos appeared to be pursuing “a full-time job filing lawsuits against SpaceX.”
He said the Inspiration4 mission would help to “ultimately make science fiction not fiction forever.”
Mr Musk added: “Hopefully, as the name suggests, it inspires people about spaceflight.”