Washington: Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is "pretty confident" that his space tourism venture Virgin Galactic will send astronauts into space by Christmas, the media reported.
In an interview with CNN Business' Rachel Crane on Friday, Branson stated that Galactic is on the verge of a major achievement and will send astronauts into space by Christmas.
Earlier in 2018, the company resumed powered test flights of the rebuilt SpaceShipTwo, named VSS Unity. A test in July sent the craft to a peak altitude of 32.3 miles. The goal is to send VSS Unity more than 50 miles above Earth, high enough to earn passengers astronaut wings from the US government, the report said.
"We have a brilliant group of astronauts who literally believe 100 per cent in the project, and give it their everything," he said, adding "I'm reasonably confident that before Christmas, we will do so".
Galactic's rocket-powered plane SpaceShipTwo has been thoroughly tested on the ground and at lower altitudes, Branson said.
The first few flights to space -- at 2,300 miles per hour, accelerating to top speed in about eight seconds -- are expected to be "the dangerous ones", Branson said.
If successful, Branson's Galactic could be ahead of fellow entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX. Musk intends to launch the first crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS) in December as well.
Both ventures are in fact in direct competition with Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, which plans to offer paying customers suborbital flights.
Both SpaceX and Blue Origin are in the race to develop reusable rockets and are part of NASA's sub-orbital reusable launch vehicle flight contract.
Faced with such stiff competition, Branson says "safety's all that matters if you're putting people into space ... So none of us will race to be the first". But, then cannot help add: "Virgin Galactic will be the first."
In 2014, SpaceShipTwo's design and flight control systems were overhauled after a test flight crash killed a co-pilot.
Virgin Galactic has been developing SpaceShipTwo since 2004, and Branson had earlier said that commercial rides would begin in 2007.
Eleven years later, the firm is still working on getting its 600 customers into space.