After the 2014 fatal breakup of Virgin Galactic's experimental rocket plane, Richard Branson is poised to resume powered test flights, with the first journey into space scheduled for the middle of next year (See: Virgin Galactic space craft crashes in California, killing pilot during test flight).
The company completed a series of glide-only sorties, with powered tests set to take place every three weeks as it aimed to extend them into space by November or December, Branson said in an interview. According to Branson, full commercial passenger operations should start by the end of 2018, following his own flight.
Branson's update was the most detailed since the October 2014 crash of Virgin Galactic's original SpaceShipTwo, which left co-pilot Michael Alsbury dead when the craft was torn apart, after he prematurely unlocked a braking mechanism.
While the accident in the Mojave Desert came just months ahead of the planned maiden commercial flight, Branson said the appetite for travel to the edge of space remained undimmed.
''We will never be able to build enough spaceships,'' Branson said yesterday in Hong Kong following the introduction of Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd. flights from Melbourne. ''The demand is enormous.''
Branson was an early leader in the new space race after founding Virgin Galactic in 2004, but rivals like Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin LLC and Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, had stolen a march over Virgin using reusable rockets to cut the cost of space travel.
Virgin Galactic yesterday confirmed that a major milestone on the company's road to recovery was around the corner.
The first powered test flights of its spaceship since the 2014 accident were on track to take place "later this fall," the company's vice president of communications Christine Choi told CNNMoney yesterday.