Virgin Galactic is “weeks away” from sending one of its rockets into space for the first time, according to founder and chairman Sir Richard Branson.
He said his space tourism firm will carry passengers beyond orbit “not too long after” that.
Virgin Atlantic's Sir Richard Branson is in a race with SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to be the first to send paying tourists into space.
Virgin Galactic, which is charging £190,000 (R3.6 million) for a spot on one of its commercial flights, has previously said it would send passengers to space in 2019.
But Sir Richard has a long history of underestimating the time it takes his firm to get test flights into the air, and the company has repeatedly missed his lofty targets. The multi-millionaire admitted earlier this year that the number of spurious claims he has made about Virgin Galactic flight dates was “embarrassing”.
In a new interview with news website CNBC, Sir Richard said: “We should be in space within weeks, not months a nd then we will be in space with myself in months and not years.”
“We will be in space with people not too long after that so we have got a very, very exciting couple of months ahead,” he added.
Virgin Galactic, founded by Branson in 2004, is working to carry tourists on a brief journey to space above the Earth’s surface.
Tourists will spend several minutes floating in zero gravity, aboard a spaceship that approaches or passes through the Karman line, the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere and space, some 100 kilometers high.
For comparison, astronauts at the orbiting International Space Station fly some 400 km above Earth.
The company first promised to fly tourists into space by the start of 2009, but multiple delays and a fatal test flight crash in 2014 have pushed its first spaceflight back numerous times.
Virgin Galactic completed its first supersonic flight since the infamous crash, which killed one test pilot and severely injured another, earlier this year.
The company plans to conduct several more supersonic test flights this year. After that, it will be closer to its goal of offering commercial spaceflight to the 600 patrons who have paid $250,000 (R3,6 million) for a ride.
Branson said “ultimately” he would like to see the price fall to around £30,000 (R580,000) over the next ten years.
Plans call for six passengers and two pilots to ride the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet. The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft – the WhiteKnightTwo – from which it will detach at around 15,000 meters.
Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky. Passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.
The total trip time would last between 90 minutes and two hours.