With launch after robotic launch, SpaceX keeps threatening to overtake Virgin Galactic. But on Tuesday, Virgin Galactic owner and entrepreneur Richard Branson told CNBC that he expected the company to send test pilots to space “within weeks, not months,” and that he was ready to follow as the first private space traveler aboard a private spaceship soon after.
Virgin Galactic has conducted three manned test flights in the Earth’s atmosphere this year, after a hiatus to recover from a fatal accident in 2014. Its main focus is on private touristic space travel from a spaceport in New Mexico, but it is also laying the bureaucratic groundwork to launch both research and private missions from Italy.
Branson’s company had its logo on the tail of a 2004 manned test flight that made it into space, but that was due to a licensing deal with Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic did not itself develop that craft, known as SpaceShipOne.
Meanwhile, another insurgent private space company, Blue Origin, founded by entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, just won the contract to provide its BE-4 engines to the behemoth United Launch Alliance.
Branson has been public about his desire to go to space since 1988 and helped finance legendary air and spacecraft designer Burt Rutan’s successful bid to win the first X Prize for private space travel. But timing has never been a strong point of his space travel prognostications: The New Mexico spaceport he announced in 2005 and built soon after remains unused.
“It would be embarrassing if someone went back over the last thirteen years and wrote down all my quotes about when I thought we would be in space.” Branson told the New Yorker earlier this year, but he says: “If you are an optimist and you talk ahead of yourself, then everybody around you has got to catch up and try to get there.”