16 years after its founding, space tourism company Virgin Galactic could soon be ready to take passengers on commercial suborbital flights.
According to a report from CNBC, the company has filed documents with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to begin the final leg of test flights of its SpaceShipTwo shuttle spacecraft.
It plans to launch the VSS Unity carrying two pilots from its Spaceport America operating base in New Mexico within a window starting on 22 October.
This will be a followed by a second crewed test flight carrying four “mission specialists” onboard.
Should the missions be successful, Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson will take a trip on the SpaceShipTwo in the first quarter of 2021.
This will officially mark the beginning of Virgin Galactic’s commercial service, which will offer passengers the opportunity to get a view of Earth from over 100km above its surface and to experience weightlessness.
The SpaceShipTwo can carry up to eight people in total – six passengers and two pilots.
For a wide selection of viewing angles, the cabin features 12 windows and 16 HD cameras for photos and videos.
How SpaceShipTwo works
Unlike spacecraft which are made for travelling into orbit, SpaceShipTwo is not launched via a rocket system.
Instead, it is attached to a carrier aircraft called White Knight Two, a quad-jet cargo aeroplane which flies the shuttle up to its launch altitude.
Once it is detached, its rocket engine propels it to an altitude of about 110km, just beyond what is regarded as the boundary of space.
When the flight is complete, the SpaceShipTwo is steered back down to Earth and lands on a runway much like one of NASA’s shuttles.
Virgin plans to operate five SpaceShipTwo spacecraft for passenger flights.
The spacecraft could further be used to transport scientific payloads for research, as well as NASA and other organisations.
The company has already started taking bookings for the flights, which are priced at $250,000 per ticket.