Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism venture Virgin Galactic has started test flight preparations for its SpaceShipTwo, the company announced on Monday. Space tourism for the rich and famous is nearly upon us, which means that for the rest of us, it may not be too far away.
Virgin Galactic hit two milestones on the first day of August: it received an “operator license” from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA-AST), and it ran taxi tests with the SpaceShipTwo.
The license will allow Virgin to eventually operate SpaceShipTwo commercially. The FAA ran through the design, safety, and flight trajectory analysis for several years before granting the license, Virgin announced. The licensing process is long, complicated, and filled with hoops that need to be jumped through, but an overview can be found on the FAA’s website.
And while that’s an important step, the visual of SpaceShipTwo being taxied out on the runway by an all-white Range Rover is a little more eye-catching than a bunch of paperwork (and it “signals the start of preparations” for flight tests).
The photo was taken on the company’s airstrip in California’s Mojave Desert. In the background, there is a sea of windmills and the company’s carrier plane, the VMS Eve. The VMS Eve got its own Twitter-love on the Virgin’s site on July 27, when the plane hit the nearby Edwards Air Force Base.
In 2007, the year Branson predicted Virgin Galactic could send tourists into space, a much different looking version of the aircraft exploded, killing three and injuring three others.
Then, in 2014, pilot error was to blame when SpaceShipTwo exploded mid-air as a speed-control system was initiated at Mach 1 instead of Mach 1.4. Virgin dedicated itself to making more of the controls autonomous, therefore safer, in future models.
The new SpaceShipTwo debuted on February 19, 2016, in a flash of hype and blue light. More than 700 people had paid the $250,000 reservation fee for a seat at that point — allegedly including the likes of Paris Hilton, Tom Hanks, and Angelina Jolie — so it’s clear the company doesn’t have a huge problem building confidence.
Justin Bieber and his manager Scooter Braun have been looking to Branson to send them to space since 2013. This was pre-DUI Bieber and pre-retired Bieber (and pre-unretired Bieber). But that’s not to say he doesn’t want to still shoot a “#nextLEVEL” music video in space.
People have been waiting for space tourism for decades now, but as of yet, nothing has come close to being able to ship Donald Trump to the Moon (or the rest of us). But the new FAA license and photo proof that the SpaceShipTwo is rolling around the tarmac means the day is closer than ever.
Photos via Getty Images / David McNew, Getty Images / Lars Baron, Virgin Galactic / Twitter