Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been trying to start a Space Tourism business ever since SpaceShipOne won the Ansari XPrize in 2004. Branson’s predictions of an imminent beginning of commercial operations with his much larger SpaceShipTwo have come and gone with regularity. His plan suffered a major setback in 2014 when an accident took the life of one pilot and injured another.

Virgin Galactic plans powered flight tests

Branson recently announced that the new and improved SpaceShipTwo, which has been undergoing glide tests, will now start making powered flights.

The plan is to gradually push back the envelope by going higher with each flight so that, by the end of 2017, SpaceShipTwo will fly 100 kilometers just past the Edge Of Space before descending to land at an airfield. If all works well, Virgin Galactic will start taking the well-heeled and adventurous on suborbital jaunts by the end of 2018, a full 14 years after the company started developing the service.

The dream of space tourism

Space tourists have been paying the Russians tens of millions of dollars to take them to the International Space Station since the beginning of the century. The service that Branson is trying to put together is a little cheaper. For about $250,000 anyone will be able to fly the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane to 100 kilometers up, see the curvature of the Earth and experience weightlessness for a few minutes before descending to land at the airfield from which the White Knight Two carried the rocket to altitude.

Branson hopes to be able to conduct several flights a day from SpacePort America in New Mexico. A number of other spaceports, such as Ellington south of Houston, are vying for horizontal takeoff and landing space flights such as the one Virgin Galactic is developing

A competitor draws nigh

Virgin Galactic is not the only company that is planning space tourism, suborbital jaunts.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has been testing the New Shepard suborbital rocket at his test range near Van Horn, Texas for the past several years with considerable success. A flight on the New Shepard would be like space travel has been more often conducted, with a rocket lifting a capsule to the edge of space, staying a few minutes, and then descending with parachutes back to the ground.

Small satellites

Branson is also planning to launch small satellites as well. Instead of SpaceShipTwo, the White Knight Two would carry a rocket with a payload to altitude and then fire it into low Earth orbit. He plans to start testing this operation in the first quarter of 2018.