Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson has claimed his company will reach space sooner than thought, with his own flight to space following soon after.
Speaking to the website CNBC, he said Virgin Galactic was “more than tantalizingly close” to conducting its first test flight in space.
"We should be in space within weeks, not months,” he said. “And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years.”
He added: "We will be in space with people not too long after that so we have got a very, very exciting couple of months ahead."
Virgin Galactic has been steadily completing tests of its SpaceShipTwo space plane, named VSS Unity, over the past few years, flying to higher and higher altitudes.
However the company has yet to actually reach space, with hundreds of paying customers waiting for it to fulfill its promise of sending tourists into space.
At about $250,000 a ticket, customers will be afforded about six minutes of weightlessness as the vehicle completes a suborbital flight. The plane takes off under its carrier aircraft, WhiteKinghtTwo, before detaching at a high altitude to fire its rocket motor, and landing on its own.
The first test flight to reach space will likely just have two pilots on board. But Branson has said previously that he himself will fly on the first passenger flight, to demonstrate the plane’s capabilities.
Based on his comments, Virgin Galactic will reach space before the end of 2019, with his flight coming not long after. Then the company will start taking its paying customers on trips into space.
He noted that he would eventually like the cost of a ticket on Virgin Galactic to reduce to $40,000 or $50,000 in the next 10 years.
Branson has also made much of a “rivalry” between himself, SpaceX’s Elon Musk, and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos, to take tourists into space. But the three companies have pretty different goals.
SpaceX and Blue Origin are both working on rockets, not planes. The former is focusing more on fulfilling a NASA contract to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), starting in mid-2019. Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard rocket, meanwhile, is a precursor to their grander goal of building and operating a variety of vehicles.
Still, if Branson is correct then this feat would be a pretty big boon for Virgin Galactic. The company has been working to recover from the tragic accident in 2014 that killed one of its pilots, Michael Alsbury, when a re-entry system was accidentally deployed and the plane was destroyed.
Branson has made lofty claims before about reaching space. Now we’ll have to wait and see if this one is genuine.