Branson says Virgin Galactic will send people to space before Christmas

Richard Branson made the bold claim last week that Virgin Galactic will send astronauts into space by Christmas.

The billionaire said he is "pretty confident" the space tourism venture he co-founded can achieve this milestone by the end of the year in a Nov. 30 interview with CNN Business.

"We have a brilliant group of astronauts who literally believe 100% in the project, and give it their everything," he said.

The entrepreneur said that the first few trips into space will be flown by test pilots with no tourists on board. He'll be the first passenger, he added.

Still, several people are ready to pony up $200,000 to $250,000 for a seat on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.

"I'm not allowed up until the [test pilots] have broken it in a few times, first," Branson told the business news network. "I would love to have gone on this very [first] flight, but [pilots] are incredibly brave people."

Of course, this isn't the first time that Branson has predicted such an achievement, only to later fall short.

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He initially said the company's maiden ship flight would launch by 2009, a date that was pushed back several times due to technical challenges.

Virgin Galactic is competing against others like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origins in a private race to space. Some analysts believe the space economy could eventually be worth $1 trillion.

NASA, which has said that several private companies will be crucial to future space exploration, recently warned SpaceX founder Musk that his public drinking and use of pot "did not inspire confidence."

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"Safety's all that matters if you're putting people into space," Branson said. "So none of us will race to be the first."

But, he added, "Virgin Galactic will be the first."

"Elon's done extraordinary things. We hope to do extraordinary things. Jeff, I'm sure, will do extraordinary things," Branson said. "The demand for space travel, whether it's satellites, putting people into space, is enormous...So, exciting times ahead."