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Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity glides through the skies over California’s Mojave Desert. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, has been toning down his predictions about the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane’s future trips to space. Until now.

During a trip to Hong Kong to inaugurate a new Virgin Australia route from Melbourne, Branson said the second SpaceShipTwo, known as VSS Unity, “will be back in space by the end of the year.”

“I plan to go to space next year,” he told Australian Business Traveller.

Bloomberg News quoted Branson as saying that rocket-powered tests would be scheduled every three weeks, culminating in test flights to outer-space altitudes by November or December. Commercial passenger operations should start by the end of 2018, after Branson’s inaugural ride, he said in an interview.

During the development and testing of the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, Branson repeatedly set ambitious timetables for the start of service. In 2008, it was 2009. In 2009, it was 2011. In 2011, it was 2013. In 2013, it was 2014. And in 2014, Branson told NBC News’ Brian Williams that he’d fly into space in “earlyish” 2015.

Then, on Oct. 31, 2014, VSS Enterprise broke up during a rocket-powered test flight, killing the co-pilot and severely injuring the pilot. In the wake of that tragedy, Branson and other Virgin Galactic executives held off on giving timetables.

It’s taken almost three years to address the flaws pointed up during the accident investigation, complete construction of VSS Unity and conduct the initial rounds of unpowered tests.

“That accident was a major, major blow, but everyone’s worked day and night since then to get us back on track,” Branson told Australian Business Traveler.

Branson’s comments signal, at the very least, that rocket-powered test flights will be starting soon.

About 700 customers – including celebrities such as Stephen HawkingLeonardo DiCaprio and Katy Perry – have made reservations for flights to the edge of space, paying as much as $250,000 for a seat.

The flight profile calls for Unity to be dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo mothership at an altitude of around 45,000 feet, fire up its hybrid rocket engine and head spaceward. The internationally accepted boundary of outer space is 100 kilometers (62 miles) in altitude, but there have been hints that initial flights might target the U.S. Air Force’s 50-mile standard instead.

At the top of the ride, passengers would feel several minutes of weightlessness. They’d get an astronaut’s-eye view of the Earth below, and experience as much as 6 G’s of acceleration. At the end, Unity would glide back to base for a runway landing.

Tests are being conducted at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, but the venue would shift to New Mexico’s Spaceport America for commercial service.

Branson said he expects to face “some formidable competition with formidably deep pockets,” coming from Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and from billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Bezos has said Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship could be flying passengers by the end of 2018. Meanwhile, Musk is bypassing the suborbital market, but capitalizing on orbital launches and making plans to fly settlers to Mars.

Branson told Bloomberg that “there is definitely the demand for all three.” He touted Virgin Orbit, a separate venture that is gearing up to launch satellites into orbit from a modified 747 jet. Virgin Orbit’s first test launches could come as early as the first quarter of 2018, Branson said.

“We can take off at 24 hours’ notice, put a couple of satellites up and come back again,” he told Bloomberg. “With ground-based rockets, there’s quite a long waiting time. Elon has bigger rockets, so he has advantages there.”

Branson implied that commercial space ventures could leapfrog NASA, even though the Trump administration revived the National Space Council last week to accelerate the government-run space effort.

“I think myself and Jeff Bezos and Elon are just getting on with it,” Branson told Bloomberg. “I don’t think I’ve heard of anything majorly exciting that’s come out of the administration as far as space is concerned, but maybe they’ll surprise us.”

He also gave a shout-out to Denver-based Boom Technology, which is developing a supersonic airplane with Virgin’s backing. Last month, Boom said five airlines have placed a total of 76 orders for planes. Branson’s Virgin Group says it has the option to buy the first 10 airframes.

“They will be much faster than Concorde, but still be flying suborbital, so maybe Boom will be about as fast as is sensible from a passenger comfort perspective,” Branson told Australian Business Traveller.

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