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Branson ‘90% convinced’ his spacecraft will fly this year

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Richard Branson, billionaire owner of Virgin Galactic, says he is “90 percent convinced” spaceships will fly from New Mexico’s taxpayer-funded Spaceport America this year – and he will be on one of them.

“I’m pretty convinced that, by this summer, our spacecraft will go into space and then I think by September myself and my family will have been into space,” Branson told Jorge Ramos of the Fusion TV network earlier this week. “I’m 90 percent convinced that will happen.”

New Mexicans may believe it when they see it.

Taxpayers in 2007 agreed to pony up $225 million to fund the spaceport. Virgin Galactic has begun paying about $1 million annually in rent but has yet to fly from the facility near Truth or Consequences. Virgin Galactic aims to become the world’s first commercial spaceline to send customers willing to pay $250,000 for a short journey into zero gravity and a glimpse of the planet from the edge of space.

Branson has overshot the target on Virgin Galactic’s start date before. A year ago in May, Branson predicted Virgin Galactic would be flying to space by Christmas 2013. Early on, the company predicted it would be flying a minimum of twice weekly and would be launching more than 700 flights annually by 2015, according to a new biography, “Richard Branson: Behind the Mask.”

Last year, Branson told the Journal, “If I’m honest, it was something like five years ago that we were hoping to have this program finished.”

Virgin Galactic continues to execute its test flight program and said in an emailed statement Thursday that it “expects to undertake a rapid and progressive series of supersonic powered flights over the summer, culminating in a full space flight.”

The company is also awaiting a commercial spaceflight permit from the Federal Aviation Administration, which it expects to receive “in plenty of time for commercial operation from Spaceport America.”

“We’re ready when they’re ready,” said Christine Anderson, Spaceport America executive director. “We’re assuming it could be any day.”

In January, Virgin Galactic completed a third rocket-powered supersonic flight of its reusable spaceship. The company said the test flight of SpaceShipTwo met all its objectives, keeping it on track to fly this year.

But the company still has a distance to go. SpaceShipTwo reached 71,000 feet altitude during the January test, shy of the generally accepted U.S. definition of “space” beginning at 250,000 feet altitude. Virgin Galactic plans to shift operations to New Mexico once it finishes the test flight program at its facility in Mojave, Calif.

“If it takes longer to do testing, we’re prepared to wait,” Anderson said. “It’s part of space flight.”

Branson qualified his flight expectations in comments to Ramos, saying, “It’s rocket science. Nothing is guaranteed. We’ve had difficulties. NASA had problems when they were first building their spaceships, as well.”

Virgin Galactic says it has accepted more than $80 million in deposits from about 680 people hoping to pioneer space tourism.

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