Appearing on UK breakfast television yesterday, the billionaire businessman stood in front of the “mothership”, with the big reveal of the newest craft happening in California later.
Designed to take thrill-seekers into space, seats on the craft, which can carry six passengers at a time, will cost $250,000 – around £174,500 – with more than 700 people said to have signed up for the journey so far.
SpaceShipTwo’s arrival signals a return to testing for Virgin Galactic, the arm of Sir Richard’s empire that hopes to be the first to take tourists on trips into space.
He said people “expect companies like Virgin to push forward” and that after yesterday’s unveiling, rigorous testing will take place over the next 12 months.
He said that “hopefully” they are “nearly at the end of a ten-year programme” to get Virgin Galactic this far.
“We will send people to space once pilots have tested the ship time and time and time again,” Sir Richard said.
In 2014, the commercial space programme suffered a setback when one pilot was killed and another seriously injured during a test flight of the prototype space tourism rocket. Just over a year on from the tragedy, Sir Richard said:
“Obviously it was a horrendous day when it happened and I must admit we had moments where I questioned if we should carry on.
“Talking to engineers and astronauts and family members and the public, we got all the feedback and it was apparent there was no way we could stop.”
He added: “Nasa had issues in its time, it is part of the process of trying to achieve things that we have not before.”
The team behind the latest suborbital spaceplane includes leaders from Nasa’s mission control and astronaut corps, the militaries from three nations and from the top flight of the aviation and transport industries.
Virgin Galactic said: “We’ve charged them with developing a plan to safely test and operate a reusable spacecraft. They have done their homework and are eager to take the proverbial keys to SpaceShipTwo.”
Sir Richard announced last July the programme was “back on track” after an investigation by US authorities into the October 2014 test flight.
Test co-pilot Michael Alsbury died when a prototype broke apart over the Mojave desert. A National Transportation Safety Body probe found the crash was caused by a catastrophic structural failure triggered when the co-pilot unlocked the craft’s braking system early.
Admitting that the flight into space would be a short one, Sir Richard said the initial trips would not be “enormously long” as they are suborbital space flights, but with “spectacular views”.
“In time we will go on to doing orbital flights, which could be as long as two or three weeks,” he added. “One day we would love to build a Virgin hotel in space.”