It was a feather in the cap of Sir Richard Branson. His Virgin Galactic space plane is getting ready to enter commercial service. The Unity vehicle, with two pilots at the controls, carried out the first of three key test flights high above the New Mexico desert. It reached a height of 55 miles and landed back on Earth. The success of this flight would pave the road to space tourism. The BBC reports that Sir Richard Branson already has a number of paying customers. They are Celebrities from the world of Movies and music but have to wait for Unity to get the US Federal Aviation Administration FAA license.

Once that is done, they can enjoy the ride and earn the tag of space tourists.

That could happen by the end of the year. There were some technical issues with the previous attempt in December, and the pilots had to abort the flight. The issues are sorted out. For the latest flight, a mother aircraft carried Unity to an altitude of 44,000 feet. Then, it ignited its rocket motor, attained a speed of Mach 3, and flew to the edge of space. Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is determined to make space tourism a reality.

Sir Richard Branson's space plane took off from Spaceport America

Unity is the Virgin Galactic spaceplane. Its test program has been running for five years in trying to perfect the maneuvers.

This particular flight took off from its operational home. This is Spaceport America, a purpose-built commercial hub. The BBC says Sir Richard Branson watched it from the ground and described it as a "beautifully elegant experience." It flew against the backdrop of New Mexico and the mountains. The plans of Virgin Galactic include another flight where four employees of the firm would join the pilots.

They would get a feel of things while traveling to the edge of space. Then would come the flight where Sir Richard himself would be a passenger. It would signal readiness for commercial service.

Space tourism has its share of competition

There is competition in the space tourism sector. The International Space Station ISS has already played host to a few wealthy individuals.

The Russian space agency organized it in 2009. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have similar projects on the anvil. A news report of June 2019 mentioned that ISS would welcome space tourists. The Russians are not far behind with ideas of using the ISS for commercial flights. There are a few private companies who are interested in this new branch of space flight. A news report mentions that a hotel in outer space could become a reality by 2027. People have already got accustomed to long-distance flying, but space tourism would be a different kettle of fish.

The human-crewed flight of Virgin Galactic's Unity heralds the age of space tourism

According to Sky News, Sir Richard Branson has set the ball rolling for space tourism.

Until now, travel in space was associated with science and technology. It stemmed from the desire to learn more about the universe, beginning with the Moon and Mars. Scientists worked in space labs to understand behavioral changes in living beings in unknown environments. The focus is now on tourism in space, and Virgin Galactic has come on the scene. The credit goes to Sir Richard Branson. His company expects commercial operations to begin next year after the completion of formalities. Elon Musk is in the queue with his SpaceX. It will launch four people into space in its first all-civilian flight in September. Later, in January 2022, three businessmen will travel to the ISS. Jeff Bezos is also in line.

His Blue Origin is in the testing phase. Incidentally, Virgin Galactic has reached space twice before. Its first flight was from California in December 2018. The second one was a successful glide flight over Spaceport America last June.