After successful in-flight demonstration of the improved feather system on Virgin Galactic Space Ship Unity, CEO George Whitesides confirms that the first spaceline company funded by Richard Branson in 2004 is on track to begin commercial passenger spaceflights before the end of next year.

Following the in-flight breakup of SpaceShipTwo during a test flight on October 31, 2014, which resulted in the death of co-pilot Michael Alsbury, a new prototype called Unity has been rolled out in February 2016 and is now undergoing extensive flight testing in Mojave, California, before the company transfer to Spaceport of America, in New Mexico, where commercial operations will be run.

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. Virgin Galactic, which has been granted a Commercial Space Transportation License by the FAA since July 29, 2016, aims to fly customers aboard the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, at a cost of $250,000 per seat. A plane called White Knight Two will carry Space Ship Two to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), then drop it; at that point, the spacecraft’s onboard rocket engine will kick on, blasting the vehicle to suborbital space to an altitude of about 68 miles (110 kilometers), above the Karman line (an altitude of 100km), which represents the boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and outer space . During the suborbital hop, passengers will be able to experience a few minutes of microgravity and see the limb of Earth set against the blackness of space. Both the plane, WHITEKNIGHTTWO, and spacecraft, SPACESHIPTWO, are designed and manufactured by The SpaceShip Company created in 2005 by Richard Branson and Burt Rutan.

Richard Branson himself is set to be among the first tourists to space in 2018 around mid-year.