ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 10 (UPI) -- Speaking to investors in Abu Dhabi today, billionaire Richard Branson said Virgin Galactic, his near-space travel venture for paying customers, will launch its first flight in 2014.
Last month, Virgin Galactic completed the third suborbital test flight of its SpaceShipTwo craft in Calif., but doubts persist over the operation's scientific and financial soundness. A launch date for the venture has been consistently delayed.
But in Abu Dhabi, Branson insisted that he would finally make good on his promise of space tourism later this year, and that he would be taking his family to the edge of space in 2014.
“It will be the start of a whole new space era,” the entrepreneur bragged at the 2014 United Arab Emirates Government Summit.
Branson was in Abu Dhabi to discuss the possibility of expanding Galactic's operations with a Spaceport in the wealthy Middle Eastern city.
“Our current primary focus is to complete the SpaceShipTwo development program and start a full commercial service later this year from its home at Spaceport America in New Mexico," explained Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic's commercial director. "Once that is established, we may seek the necessary U.S. export approvals to operate from locations outside the US with Abu Dhabi as a likely first overseas base, should those approvals be forthcoming."
A book published earlier this month, "Branson Behind the Mask," by investigative reporter Tom Bower, claims Virgin Galactic still faces some serious hurdles, such as significant safety concerns and the task of earning final regulatory approvals from agencies like the FAA.
The book also claims that Branson is over-selling the flight's "space" component, as the rockets will only be able to crest a few miles beyond the atmosphere -- a trajectory that will allow for magnificent views of Earth, Bower argues, but no galaxy gazing.
[Bloomberg] [The National] [The Daily Beast]