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Branson: Virgin Galactic Will Send First Astronauts to Space by Christmas

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson says his space tourism venture should be off the ground within the next month.

Branson, speaking with CNN, said he is “pretty confident” Virgin Galactic will send its first astronauts to space by Christmas. Those test flights will pave the way for tourists to explore the stars (or, technically, beyond the defined boundary of space, which is 100 km above the planet).

“I’m not allowed up until the [test pilots] have broken it in a few times, first,” he said. “I would love to have gone on this very [first] flight, but [pilots] are incredibly brave people.”

If Branson’s right about the schedule, Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two would beat competing companies, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which plans to begin selling tickets to passengers in 2019. (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and, until his recent death, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, have also invested in space projects.)

Virgin Galactic suffered a setback two years ago when its spacecraft came apart during a test flight, but tests will resumed earlier this year. Tourists are eager, though. The company has sold roughly 650 tickets for $250,000 each already.

It’s worth noting that Branson has been overly optimistic about Virgin Galactic’s timetable before. The company was founded in 2004 and originally was scheduled to begin flights in 2007. Also, officially, there is still no clearly defined date as to when Virgin Galactic will begin ferrying paying passengers beyond earth’s atmosphere.