The SpaceNews annual Top 5 Companies to Watch feature is not a ranking per se, but if it were, Virgin Galactic, the space tourism startup founded by Sir Richard Branson, would have to be this year’s top pick. It’s not so much about the business impact — Virgin Galactic’s footprint on the worldwide space economy is relatively small — as what it represents: a new era in human spaceflight. 

Dreamers have for years envisioned the day when space travel is routine and widely accessible to the public: Virgin Galactic, if successful, will bring that dream a giant step closer to reality.

To be sure, Branson’s company will be taking paying passengers to only the edge of space, where they will be able to see the curvature of Earth and experience several minutes of microgravity. And, of course, at an initial cost of $250,000 apiece, rides aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane will be well beyond the means of all but the wealthiest few.

But to put that into perspective, fewer than 600 people to date have flown to or beyond 100 kilometers in altitude, an internationally recognized space-Earth boundary. Furthermore, these flights have taken place over a span of more than 50 years at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars invested by the world’s most powerful nations. 

Virgin Galactic reached the 500th customer mark in March 2012 when actor Ashton Kutcher booked a suborbital ride on SpaceShipTwo. 

In other words, Virgin Galactic conceivably could nearly double the number of people who have earned astronaut wings in the first few years of operations, this after a private-sector investment that Branson says totals around $400 million. Moreover, the company has plans to dramatically reduce prices by making SpaceShipTwo vehicles fully reusable — the first will fly only once, but Branson says future versions could fly 100 times or more — which would substantially widen its customer base. So it’s possible that 10 or 15 years from now, government-sponsored space fliers will be a small minority of the total. 

A lot has to happen between now and then. SpaceShipTwo has yet to make its first suborbital flight, for example. But the rocket plane’s innovative flight operations concept has been demonstrated multiple times with the smaller SpaceShipOne spacecraft that won the Ansari X Price nine years ago by becoming the first privately funded vehicle to carry a human being to space and back.

Like most aerospace development projects, Virgin Galactic is behind schedule, but its moment of truth appears close at hand. SpaceShipTwo has conducted two powered test flights to date and is on track for its first suborbital flight early next year. Assuming all goes well, the first passenger-carrying flight could take place next June.

Adding to the drama, Branson, a well-known adventurer as well as entrepreneur, plans to be aboard that first flight, possibly with his grown son and daughter, in an event that could attract tens if not hundreds of millions of TV viewers worldwide. As even the biggest Virgin Galactic skeptics would have to acknowledge, that doesn’t happen very often in today’s space industry.