CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — On June 21, 2004, Scaled Composites pilot Mike Melville strapped himself inside an experimental spaceship, hitched an airplane ride into the sky, fired up his rocket engine and catapulted himself beyond the atmosphere, becoming the first privately funded astronaut to reach space. 

Two more suborbital hops followed in September and October, earning SpaceShipOne the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private human spaceflight and a place in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. 

The endeavor captivated Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire adventurer who founded and oversees London-based Virgin Group, and he hired Scaled to produce a commercial version of the spaceship so that anyone with the money to spare could experience for themselves a few minutes of microgravity and a fleeting view of Earth set against the blackness of space.

Nine years and a half-billion dollars later, Branson marked the biggest milestone yet validating that his dream was more than a flight of fancy. On April 29, Virgin Galactic’s six-passenger, dual-pilot SpaceShipTwo successfully completed the first in-flight test-firing of its rocket motor over California’s Mojave Desert. The burn lasted just 16 seconds, but to Branson it was the long-awaited giant leap. 

“The rocket technology took longer (to develop) than the spaceship or the mothership or the spaceport, but they finally got there. The big, difficult milestones are now all behind us,” Branson told SpaceNews. 

It took SpaceShipOne just three powered test flights over six months before Melville crossed the Karman Line, the official 100-kilometer doorway to space. Branson expects SpaceShipTwo will follow a similar path and test its wings — and feathered re-entry system — beyond the atmosphere before year’s end. 

On what may be the last test flight or the first commercial one, Branson himself plans to be aboard, accompanied by his two grown children and up to three as-yet-unnamed guests, possibly including Scaled founder and lead spaceship designer Burt Rutan, who has since retired.

“Within 12 months, I’ll be going up with my adult kids and it will be the start of a whole new era of space travel. We’re really not long away now,” Branson said.

Virgin Galactic plans to fly SpaceShipTwo — and a fleet of sisterships — from a newly built spaceport in New Mexico. About 580 people already have paid or put down deposits for rides, which currently sell for $200,000 apiece. 

“As of this year, we will be the only company actually taking people into space. At an affordable rate, I think, Virgin will be the only company over the next few years to do so,” Branson said. “There have been quite a few other companies  who have invested hundreds of millions trying to achieve this. It’s a challenge.”

Among those planning to give Virgin a run for customers’ money is XCOR Aerospace, which expects to begin test flights of its two-seater suborbital Lynx spaceplane this year. Other firms, such as Space Exploration Technologies, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. — which supplied SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid motor — are working to parlay investment funds from NASA into commercially owned and operated orbital spaceships for flying people to the international space station and other destinations in low Earth orbit.

Virgin too has its eye on orbital space transportation, but plans to build up to it from suborbital flight services — including point-to-point travel — and from a fledging satellite-launching business that uses the spaceship’s carrier WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. 

“All of these things are now possible,” Branson said. “We will be ramping up our spaceship-building program over the next three years. We believe the demand will exceed supply and now that we’ve gotten through this milestone, we’ll certainly be expanding the program.”

Branson said he expects to add another $100 million or so to the $500 million already spent on the SpaceShipTwo project, but ticket sales will not be Virgin’s only return on investment. 

With two WhiteKnight carrier aircraft, Virgin Galactic can put 3,500 small satellites into orbit per month.

“That can do radical things for telecommunications, Internet access, Wi-Fi and so on. It’s many, many more than anyone else has the capability of doing,” Branson said. 

“Because we’re not land-based, it’s much easier for us to do it without having to wait in a long queue to do so. We can replace satellites in 24 hours, and we can put an array in very quickly,” he said.