Following the historic first rocket-powered flight of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, Virgin Galactic plans to build a fleet of spaceships and begin ferrying hundreds of tourists into space in 2014. And then? A whole new kind of spacecraft, Sir Richard Branson said.
“We’ll be building orbital spaceships after that,” Branson told Fox News Tuesday.
On Monday morning, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo space plane fired its rocket engines for the first time in a test flight out of California's Mojave Air and Spaceport. After being hoisted into the air aboard the “mothership” craft WhiteKnightTwo, it was released at an altitude of about 46,000 feet before firing its rocket for 16 seconds and racing to a speed of Mach 1.2, fast enough to beat the speed of sound.
It was a huge leap for Virgin Galactic, taking the company much closer to its goal of space tourism, Branson said.
“It was the biggest milestone in this program, and it’s taken us eight and a half years to get there. Now we know it can break the sound barrier safely. Now we can start testing at 2,000 miles an hour, 3,000 miles an hour, 4,000 miles an hour -- and then by the end of the year, be ready to do flights into space,” Branson said.
“It was a historic day, and great fun,” he added.
Following those increasingly fast and long rocket-powered tests, Branson said the company will begin flights into space, as soon as the end of the year. To reach that goal, he has greenlit new spacecraft, he told Fox News.
“We’ve already given the go-ahead to start building more spaceships, more motherships, more satellite launchers … it really is the start of a whole new era of space travel.”
Only 500 people or so have travelled into space so far. Branson aims to send another 500 into space in 2014 alone, at which point they’ll be able to officially call themselves astronauts.
“They’re the pioneers. They’ve enabled us to begin this program. And they’ll be able to go into space next year,” Branson said.
And Branson has plans for the future of the company: far longer trips into space, potentially lasting for days or even longer.
“We’ll be building orbital spaceships after that,” Branson said, “so that people who want to go for a week or two can.”