The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has just awarded Virginal Galactic their first operating license, allowing them to start using their SpaceShipTwo craft for commercial use - as soon as certain guidelines are met.
This means that the company - owned by billionaire Richard Branson - will soon be able to shuttle paying passengers into space, possibly becoming the first private company to do so.
"The granting of our operator license is an important milestone for Virgin Galactic, as is our first taxi test for our new spaceship. While we still have much work ahead to fully test this spaceship in flight, I am confident that our world-class team is up to the challenge," Mike Moses, the company’s senior vice president of operations, said in a statement.
Other than making the flights legal, the license dictates the conditions required before Virgin Galactic can actually let any passengers on board SpaceShipTwo, which will be carried by White Knight Two roughly 99 kilometres (62 miles) into the sky.
"[Virgin Galactic] must successfully verify the integrated performance of the SpaceShipTwo/White Knight Two vehicle hardware and any software in an operational flight environment before allowing any space flight participant on board during a flight," the FAA explained in an email to Irene Klotz from Seeker.
"Verification must include flight testing, and the results must be provided to the FAA prior to conducting a mission with a space flight participant on board."
Once everything is squared away with the FAA, SpaceShipTwo - a spacecraft designed to hold two pilots and six passengers - will hitch a ride with White Knight Two, ascending high enough that passengers can view the curve of our planet.
In essence, Virgin Galactic’s 'space tourism' model isn’t too far from Blue Origin’s - the private space company owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Both aim to send wealthy customers to the edge of Earth's atmosphere with reusable crafts.
"We are here because we believe we are at the vanguard of a new space industry that is defining the future of exploration and that we will ultimately make space accessible to more people and for more purposes than ever before," Virgin Galactic explains on its website.
Neither Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic has given a date for when they plan on actually launching their commercial flights, presumably because there's still a whole lot of testing to be done.
The new license comes two years after a failed Virgin Galactic test flight - using an earlier version of the SpaceShipTwo - exploded over California, killing one test pilot and injuring the other.
Right now, the price tag for a trip on SpaceShipTwo has been set to around US$250,000, and about 700 people have so far put deposits down for flights, Klotz reports. Hopefully, as more companies start popping up offering similar services, the price will drop, allowing more people to experience space first-hand.
Check out the video below to see the new SpaceShipTwo in action: