Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson said his spaceship has just a few more test flights before he jumps on board for the first tourist trip.
The British billionaire celebrated his 69th birthday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during 50th-anniversary festivities for humanity’s first moon landing. His guests were 100 other aspiring astronauts who have put down deposits to launch into space with Virgin Galactic. Like Branson, many in the crowd were inspired to fly into space by Apollo 11, which he called “the most audacious journey of all time.”
Branson said three or four test flights will be conducted from New Mexico, beginning this fall, before engineers allow him to fly. The two suborbital test flights to date — conducted in December and February over California’s Mojave Desert — provided several minutes of weightlessness.
Branson declined to say when his flight might happen.
“My track record for giving dates has been so abysmal that I’m not giving dates anymore. But I think months, not years,” he told The Associated Press.
The company is in the process of moving from Southern California to Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert near Truth or Consequences, which has set everything back four months, according to Branson. The test pilots need to practice landing there, he said, before passengers tag along.
“I certainly won’t go into space before brave test pilots feel 100% comfortable that we’ve checked every box,” Branson said.
In 2014, the company’s experimental space plane broke apart during a California test flight, killing the co-pilot.
The winged spaceship is dropped in flight from a custom-designed airplane; once free, it fires its rocket motor to hurtle toward space before gliding back to Earth like NASA’s old space shuttles. The latest test flight by VSS Unity reached an altitude of 56 miles (90 kilometers) while traveling at three times the speed of sound.
About 600 people, ranging from their teens to early 90s, have reserved a seat, according to a company spokeswoman. Tickets are US$250,000.
When asked if she’ll be afraid, Houston violinist Debbie Moran, 62, said she’s trying to do everything she’s ever wanted to do in life before her spaceflight in another few years.
“We all know it’s not the safest thing in the world,” she said. “I still have not told my mother.”