The FAA has given Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic the green light to begin flying customers to the edge of space, but first the company plans to put Branson and employees on the final test flights of its SpaceShipTwo. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic group passed a major hurdle to take paying customers to space aboard its SpaceShipTwo.

Its licence has been enhanced by the US Federal Aviation Administration to allow a full commercial launch, after a successful test flight last month, The Guardian reported.

Branson may yet be on board the first passenger flight, which according to some reports could be as early as 4 July from the New Mexico spaceport.

The FAA blessing came as Branson vies with two of the world’s three richest men, the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and Tesla’s boss, Elon Musk, in developing space flight.

Bezos recently announced he would be on board the first passenger flight of the New Shepard spacecraft, built by his company Blue Origin, on 20 July.

Three more test flights are planned after the 22 May test, where the SpaceShipTwo craft reached space at an altitude of 55.5 miles and a speed of Mach 3, or more than 2,300 mph.

“I appreciate that there is a lot of speculation” over whether Branson will try to beat Bezos into space, company spokeswoman Valerija Cymbal said in an email. “But we don’t have any announcements about Virgin Galactic’s future flight plans at this time.”

Michael Colglazier, chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic, said: “We’re incredibly pleased with the results of our most recent test flight, which achieved our stated flight test objectives.

“The flight performed flawlessly and the results demonstrate the safety and elegance of our flight system.

“Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch licence, in conjunction with the success of our May 22 test flight, give us confidence as we proceed toward our first fully crewed test flight this summer.”

The licence puts Branson within reach of finally realizing the ambition of the Virgin Galactic firm he founded back in 2004, which has booked numerous celebrities and super-rich passengers on board eventual space flights, at about US$200,000 (£144,000) a ticket.

The company said more than 600 people already have reserved a ride to space.

The enterprise has been marked by numerous setbacks, not least two fatal accidents in 2007 and 2014, which killed three engineers and a test pilot.

Unlike Blue Origin’s and SpaceX’s capsules launched from the ground by reusable rockets, Virgin Galactic uses a winged spacecraft that launches from the belly of an airplane. It’s reached space three times since 2018 with two pilots in the cockpit.

Spacecraft Unity is designed to hold up to six passengers along with the two pilots. 

A review of the company’s third flight to space in May — which reached an altitude of 55 miles (89 kilometers) — showed everything went well and paved the way for the necessary FAA permission.

More than 600 people already have reserved a ride to space. Tickets initially cost $250,000, but the price is expected to go up once Virgin Galactic starts accepting reservations again.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity on the way to its first spaceflight after launch from Spaceport America, N.M., on May 22, 2021. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

Blue Origin has yet to sell tickets to the public or say what it will cost. Bezos is taking his brother and two others along for the ride on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the first moon landing.

Virgin Galactic chief astronaut trainer Beth Moses is the only nonpilot to fly on one of the company’s spaceflights.

To date, five Virgin Galactic employees, including four pilots, have become FAA-recognized astronauts — as the US officially views an altitude of 80 kilometers (or about 50 miles) as the boundary to space.

Sources: The Guardian, Associated Press, NBC News, CNBC online