Virgin Galactic should be ready to launch its first flight to suborbital space later this year, company founder Sir Richard Branson said.
"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 program isn't well underway by the end of next year," Branson told London-based newspaper The Daily Telegraph, breaking an unofficial Virgin Galactic rule about giving dates when discussing the company's spaceflight plans.
Branson has said that he, and some of his family members, will be aboard Virgin Galactic's first passenger spaceflight.
Virgin Galactic aims to fly customers aboard the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, at a cost of $250,000 per seat. A plane called WhiteKnightTwo will carry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), then drop it; at that point, the spacecraft's onboard rocket engine will kick on, blasting the vehicle to suborbital space.
Virgin Galactic's first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, called VSS Enterprise, performed four rocket-powered test flights in Earth's atmosphere. But the last of these flights, which took place on Oct. 31, 2014, ended in disaster; the space plane broke apart in midair after its "feathering" descent system deployed too early. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed, and pilot Peter Siebold was seriously injured.
Virgin Galactic regrouped after the tragic accident. The company unveiled its second SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, to the public in February 2016; the vehicle has since performed several unpowered "glide flights" and should be ready to begin the rocket-powered phase of its test campaign soon, Virgin representatives have said.
"The test program 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," Branson told The Telegraph.
Read the full story at The Daily Telegraph here.