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Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic just got another step closer to flying tourists to space

Virgin Spaceship Unity and Virgin Mothership Eve take to the skies on their first captive carry flight Sept. 8, 2016. (Courtesy of Virgin Galactic)

Richard Branson is a step closer to getting to space. On Tuesday, Virgin Galactic, the company he founded more than a decade ago with the goal of flying tourists to the edge of space and back, performed another test flight over the Mojave Desert in California.

SpaceShipTwo, Unity, a winged space plane, went supersonic for the second time, firing its engine for just 31 seconds. But that was enough to power the vehicle to an altitude of nearly 22 miles and a maximum speed of almost Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound.

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic conducted the second test flight of its commercial spaceship, VSS Unity. (Video: Virgin Galactic)

In an interview after the flight, Branson said, “It was as good as it gets today.” The pilots, he said, “came back with massive beams on their faces. It’s a big, big step today.”

The company plans to have another test flight in about six weeks or so, he said, and then it could attempt to reach the edge of space on the next flight — but that would depend on how the vehicle performs in the test flights.

Virgin Galactic, which charges $250,000 a ticket, has some 700 people signed up to fly, and Branson has said he would be among the first to go. To prepare for his flight, which he has said could come this year, the 67-year-old said he’s been cycling, playing tennis in the morning and evening, and spending time in a centrifuge to get his body used to the additional gravitational forces passengers would experience on SpaceShipTwo.

Blue Origin, the space company owned by Jeffrey P. Bezos, is also aiming to fly its first test flights with people by the end of this year. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Branson said he expected that the companies would both “have a person in space roundabout the same time.” But he said they “are not in a race to get to space. … All that matters in the end is that everybody is safe and well.”

He said that some of his customers have also expressed interest in flying with Blue Origin, which has not set a price. “The more spaceships that get built, the better the price will be, and the bigger the market, and the more resources that Jeff and ourselves will have to invest in exciting things going forward in space,” he said.

SpaceShipTwo is “air launched,” meaning it is tethered to the belly of a mother ship, which flies to some 45,000 feet. Then the spacecraft is released; it fires its engine and powers off through the atmosphere.

Branson has been attempting to get to space for years, ever since he acquired the rights to the technology of the spacecraft from Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft who in 2004 backed a venture that flew a vehicle past the 100-kilometer edge of space three times. Since then, Branson has been pursuing his own quest to build an even bigger vehicle that would be capable of carrying as many as six passengers and two pilots to the edge of space, where they would enjoy floating weightlessly around the cabin and views of the Earth from above.

But the program has had multiple setbacks. The schedule has been delayed for years. And in 2014, a previous version of SpaceShipTwo came apart midflight, killing the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury.