Virgin Galactic will soon begin test flights of its newest spacecraft, bringing us that much closer to zero-gravity vacations. The space tourism company announced on Monday that it had been granted an operator license for its SpaceShipTwo craft by the US Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. This license will ultimately permit Virgin Galactic to take paying customers into space, said the company in a press release. It's a significant step for Virgin Galactic, whose progress was halted in 2014 when an earlier model of SpaceShipTwo was accidentally destroyed during a test flight, resulting in the death of one pilot and severe injuries for the other.
But the company's founder, Richard Branson, is determined to not let the crash stop Virgin Galactic in its quest to pioneer space tourism. In February, Virgin Galactic unveiled the VSS Unity, an updated version of SpaceShipTwo said to have safety mechanisms that would prevent the same mistake that caused the crash in 2014 from occurring again.
The craft underwent its first taxi test on Monday, one of many tests required before Virgin Galactic can take any passengers up into space. "The granting of our operator license is an important milestone for Virgin Galactic, as is our first taxi test for our new spaceship," said Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic's senior vice president of operations, in a press release. "While we still have much work ahead to fully test this spaceship in flight, I am confident that our world-class team is up to the challenge."
Virgin Galactic has not yet announced when the Unity will make its first test flight, but chief executive officer George Whitesides told Fortune in May that the company hopes to send satellites, if not people, into space by 2017. Approximately 700 people have already bought tickets to be some of the first tourists to go to space – or at least low Earth orbit. The list of hopeful future astronauts is said to include celebrities such as Stephen Hawking, Brad Pitt, and Katy Perry.
While the current $250,000 price tag makes space travel just out of reach for many, Mr. Branson says the cost will slowly decrease as the company expands its fleet of spaceships and ports. He hopes that in 20 years, "people who've done relatively well" will be able to afford a trip to space, he told The Guardian in April. There are "millions and millions of people out there who would love to become astronauts," he said. "If we can make it environmentally friendly, if we can make it affordable and if we can make it safe, then in time your children and my grandchildren will all have the chance to go to space."
Though Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004, bills itself as "the world's first commercial spaceline," it's since been joined by several rivals – most notably, Blue Origin, owned by Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos, who in March announced plans to begin human test flights in 2017.