Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has made another small leap in the billionaire space race after US authorities gave it permission to take paying customers to space.
Its licence was enhanced on Friday by the US Federal Aviation Administration to allow a full commercial launch, after a successful test flight last month.
Branson may yet be on board the first passenger flight, which according to some reports could be as early as 4 July from the New Mexico spaceport, although the firm said this was speculation.
Three more test flights are planned after the 22 May test, where the SpaceShipTwo craft reached space at an altitude of 55.5 miles and a speed of Mach 3, or more than 2,300 miles an hour.
A spokeswoman for Virgin Galactic said: “As previously announced, we expect to complete the final test flights this summer through to early fall [autumn]. At this time, we have not determined the date of our next flight.”
Michael Colglazier, chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic, said: “We’re incredibly pleased with the results of our most recent test flight, which achieved our stated flight test objectives. The flight performed flawlessly and the results demonstrate the safety and elegance of our flight system.
“Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch licence, in conjunction with the success of our May 22 test flight, give us confidence as we proceed toward our first fully crewed test flight this summer.”
The FAA blessing came as Branson vies with two of the world’s three richest men, the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and Tesla’s boss, Elon Musk, in developing space flight. Bezos recently announced he would be on board the first passenger flight of the New Shepard spacecraft, built by his company Blue Origin, on 20 July.
The licence puts Branson within reach of finally realising the ambition of the Virgin Galactic firm he founded back in 2004, which has booked numerous celebrities and super-rich passengers on board eventual space flights, at about $200,000 (£14,400) a ticket.
The enterprise has been marked by numerous setbacks, not least two fatal accidents in 2007 and 2014, which killed three engineers and a test pilot.
Virgin Galactic became a publicly traded company in 2019, while Branson has recently sold hundreds of millions of dollars of shares to help prop up his struggling Virgin Atlantic airline, as it grounded its fleets and laid off staff because of the Covid pandemic.