Virgin Galactic is sending people to space this year. Probably.
During an interview with CNN, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said is he is “pretty confident” his space tourism venture will complete its first crewed test flight before Christmas. But there are some caveats.
The plan, according to Branson, is for test pilots to complete the first few flights solo. Those pilots will operate Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo (SS2) spaceplane, which won’t actually launch from the ground — it will hitch a ride up to an elevation of roughly 15 kilometers (9.4 miles) via a jet-powered mothership.
At that point, the SS2 will detach and accelerate to a top speed of approximately 2,300 miles per hour in about eight seconds, Branson told CNN.
If all goes well with those pilot-only flights, Branson will then become Virgin Galactic’s first passenger. “I’m not allowed up until the [test pilots] have broken it in a few times, first,” he said. “I would love to have gone on this very [first] flight, but [pilots] are incredibly brave people.”
Thus far, the highest altitude reached by an SS2 is 32.3 miles, but the goal is to hit 50 miles — the minimum altitude required to earn “space wings” from the U.S. government.
That might not be anywhere near the altitude many think of when they think “space” — the International Space Station is 254 miles above Earth’s surface, for example — but the trip would afford tourists the ability to experience weightlessness and provide them with a view of the Earth’s curved horizon.
This is far from the first time Branson has set a date for a Virgin Galactic crewed space flight — he initially said the company would hit that milestone by 2007 — so it’s natural to be skeptical of his latest claim. For his part, though, Branson seems unfazed by those who doubt that his company will ever actually send people to space.
“Space is difficult. Rocket science is rocket science,” Branson told CNN. “I obviously would love to prove our critics wrong, and I’m reasonably confident that before Christmas, we will do so.”
More on Virgin Galactic: Surprise! Virgin Galactic Just Did a Test Launch of Its SpaceShipTwo Spaceplane