Virgin Galactic to Begin Commercial Space Tourism Flights in…..

Gear down. (Photo: Mark Greenberg)

Attenborough: [Launching our first commercial flight] 18 months to two years from now is achievable, but that isn’t to say that we will achieve it. The only thing that will extend that expected timeline is if something comes up during the remainder of the test flight program.

Or so Virgin Galactic’s Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough tells The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong . The company’s founder, Richard Branson, has been making similar predictions for years now.

According to the latest 18-24 month prediction, flights would begin between April and October 2013. That would be roughly 8 1/2 to 9 years after Virgin Galactic launched its effort to send tourists into space in the wake of SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize. The seventh anniversary of that event is tomorrow, October 4.

During an appearance at the 100 Year Starship Conference over the weekend, VG CEO George Whitesides was more cautious, refusing as usual to make any predictions as to the start of commercial operations. Jeff Foust has a good summary of his comments, which boil down to:

  • SpaceShipTwo has spent the last several months in the hangar undergoing modifications
  • SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo will begin flight tests again to test the modifications over the next several months
  • The hybrid motor will be integrated into SpaceShipTwo early next year with powered flights to follow
  • “Our current aspiration is to try to get to some definition of space by the end of next year” — whatever that means
  • Commercial operations will depend on shifting flight ops from Mojave to Spaceport America and getting a launch license from the FAA.

We’ll see how things go. One thing looks likely: with SpaceShipTwo set to make powered flights and the planned debut of XCOR’s Lynx vehicle next fall, the year 2012 will be a banner year for the development of suborbital spacecraft.