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Virgin Galactic will attempt one of its highest and fastest test flights ever on Wednesday, and it could bring the company closer to its goal of launching paying customers to space this year.
A rocket-powered plane, called VSS Unity, is scheduled to lift off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California Wednesday morning. Two veteran test pilots will be on board: Dave Mackay, the head of Virgin Galactic’s pilot corps, and former Air Force lieutenant colonel Mike “Sooch” Masucci.
Virgin Galactic made history in December when VSS Unity climbed to more than 50 miles above Earth, the line that the US government considers the edge of space, and the altitude that Virgin Galactic wants to reach during commercial missions.
The company will fly four research payloads for NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program on Wednesday’s mission. Bringing NASA on as a customer will make this flight the second revenue-earning mission for the company.
Virgin Galactic has been hungry for cash since founder Richard Branson announced he would no longer accept a $1 billion investment from Saudi Arabia. He said he shunned the money after learning about the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
Branson said that he hoped the historic December test flight would help “bring in one or two other investors.”
A NASA spokesperson said the Flight Opportunities program paid Virgin Galactic for this mission as part of a larger agreement that is worth $1.5 million. The value of Virgin Galactic’s contract with NASA has not been disclosed.
More test flights are planned in coming months to fine-tune the vehicle before passengers will be allowed on board. Branson has said commercial flights could begin by July. He plans to be the first passenger on board.
“Although we passed a major milestone in December, we still have a way to go in testing the many factors that can affect a flight,” Virgin Galactic said in a Tuesday blog post.
More than 600 people around the world have reserved tickets, priced between $200,000 and $250,000, to fly with Virgin Galactic once commercial operations begin. Some of them have been waiting more than a decade for their shot.
Branson’s venture is queued up to compete directly with Blue Origin, the secretive space tourism and rocket firm founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in 2000.
Blue Origin completed the 10th test flight of its New Shepard launch vehicle and capsule system in January. Unlike Virgin Galactic, its technology is fully automated, so there have been no humans on board their test flights.
Both companies plan to use suborbital rocket technology to shuttle people to the edge of space where they can briefly experience weightlessness and take in expansive views of Earth.