Virgin Galactic set to start powered flight tests, aims for 2018 commercial trips

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Virgin Galactic is resuming powered tests of its spaceplane after a tragic accident with its test vehicle SpaceShipTwo resulted in the death of co-pilot Michael Alsbury in 2014. The news comes via Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who shared the news speaking to Bloomberg.

After current glide-only tests wrap up, powered tests will begin at a pace of one every three weeks, reaching higher altitudes until eventually climbing to the edge of space by November or December of this year. If all goes well, Branson himself is set to be among the first tourists to space in 2018 around mid-year, and then by the end of 2018 he hopes to begin offering full commercial flights for paying passengers.

This is the most we’ve heard about the progress of Virgin Galactic’s commercial passenger jet plan since the accident happened in 2014, and Branson tells Bloomberg that despite delays and the advent of new competitors in the space, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, they’ll still “never be able to build enough spaceships” to satisfy demand.

Virgin Galactic now includes Virgin Orbit, a small satellite launch and logistics business, and its most recent unpowered tests of its VSS Unity aircraft was a success, paving the way for flights with fuel on board, and then eventually powered flights as well.