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Virgin Galactic is weeks away from reaching space, CEO says

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson speaks at a news conference on March 30 in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

A few months after another successful test flight over the Mojave Desert, billionaire Richard Branson says his space company, Virgin Galactic, might be out among the stars in a matter of weeks.

“We should be in space within weeks, not months,” Branson told CNBC on Tuesday. “And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years.”

The 68-year-old chief executive of Virgin, along with Amazon’s Jeffrey P. Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk, is determined to bring tourists to space, sooner rather than later. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Bezos has said his space company, Blue Origin, also is expecting to pilot test flights by the end of 2018. In September, Musk announced his SpaceX company had sold its first ticket for a trip around the moon. Last year, Bank of America Merrill Lynch predicted the space sector would be worth $2.7 trillion by 2045.

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

Branson has previously said he thinks Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin 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.”

To prepare for his maiden voyage, Branson said, he’s been training rigorously: cycling, playing tennis and spending time in a centrifuge to acquaint his body with the gravitational forces of space.

Some 700 people are on Virgin Galactic’s waiting list (to the tune of $250,000 a ticket) for the company’s first commercial flights, whenever they might be. Branson’s other space company, Virgin Orbit, has a contract with the Pentagon to launch “technology demonstration satellites”, which it is aiming to do by 2019.

Branson’s quest for space travel started in 2004, when he won the rights to spacecraft technology of Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft who funded a venture that flew a vehicle past the 100-kilometer edge of space three times. But Branson’s efforts haven’t been without extreme cost. In 2014, an early version of a Virgin Galactic spacecraft pulled apart and crashed during a test flight over the Mojave Desert, killing a co-pilot, Michael Alsbury.

Since then, Virgin Galactic has had several successful test flights, with its space planes safely reaching Mach 2, which is about twice the speed of sound. Branson hopes to have a space craft that can carry six passengers and two pilots above Earth.