Richard Branson has confirmed plans to launch people into space in 2018, with the first test flights beginning this year.
In a new interview, Branson said that Virgin Galactic will start performing powered tests of its SpaceShipTwo craft every three weeks, with plans to extend them into space by November or December.
And after his own flight, full commercial passenger operations will start by the end of 2018, he said.
While Branson is optimistic about Virgin Galactic’s commercial space flights, he said that the huge appetite for space travel leaves room for competitors.
Speaking to Bloomberg, Branson said: ‘We will never be able to build enough spaceships. The demand is enormous.’
Branson mentioned that Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin – two of Virgin Galactic’s biggest competitors – could fill this gap.
He said: ‘There is definitely the demand for all three.
‘We can take off at 24-hour’s notice, put a couple of satellites up and come back again.
‘With ground-based rockets, there’s quite a long waiting time. Elon has bigger rockets, so he has advantages there.’
When asked to comment on Donald Trump’s views on space travel, Branson said: ‘I think myself and Jeff Bezos and Elon are just getting on with it.
‘I don’t think I’ve heard of anything majorly exciting that’s come out of the administration as far as space is concerned, but maybe they’ll surprise us.’
Already 500 potential customers have reserved a spot on one of his trips at a cost of $250,000 (£200,000) each.
Last August the SpaceShipTwo aircraft – which is designed for two pilots and six passengers – received its operating licence from the US Federal Aviation Authority.
‘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 progamme isn’t well underway by the end of next year’, Branson told the Telegraph in April.
‘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’, he said.
Earlier this year, Branson also invited Professor Stephen Hawking to come to space on board a Virgin Galactic flight.
The physicist and cosmologist, 75, said he had not expected to have the opportunity to experience space but that the Virgin boss had offered him a seat.
Discussing the meaning of happiness on Good Morning Britain, he said: ‘My three children have brought me great joy.
‘And I can tell you what will make me happy, to travel in space. I thought no one would take me but Richard Branson has offered me a seat on Virgin Galactic, and I said yes immediately.’
Branson had previously suggested that he might be able to complete a flight in 2009, but the plan was thrown off by a range of problems and disasters.
In October 2014, SpaceShipTwo – a plane designed to run the first ever passenger flights into space – split into pieces as it fell to Earth over California’s Mojave Desert.
The vehicle broke up after the co-pilot unlocked the craft’s tail wing breaking system early, which led to a sudden increase in aerodynamic forces as it passed through the sound barrier.
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