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Virgin Galactic could beat SpaceX to major milestone Thursday

Neither Elon Musk's company nor Blue Origin have done it just yet, and it's a long time coming for Richard Branson's space tourism venture.

Virgin's SpaceShipTwo takes flight.
Virgin Galactic

Update, Dec. 13, 10 a.m. PT: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo successfully touched suborbital space with two humans aboard. Read about it here

For 14 years, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic have been working toward taking people to space, and they may be about to beat Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to the milestone. 

The aspiring space tourism outfit says it could conduct the fourth test flight of its SpaceShipTwo space plane as soon as Thursday from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The exact time the launch window opens has not been announced, but based on airspace closures listed by the Federal Aviation Administration, it will need to happen in the morning between 7 a.m. and noon PT.

The test flight will see Virgin Galactic's huge carrier airplane take off from Mojave carrying VSS Unity (an individual unit of SpaceShipTwo, titled the way each individual Space Shuttle had its own name). Unity will then detach and fire its rockets a few seconds later, shooting itself as high as 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the surface.

Technically that's in the mesosphere, below the widely accepted boundary of space at 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the Earth's surface. But such definitions can be a little loose, and the company says its pilots will likely feel like they're in space.

"If all goes to plan our pilots will experience an extended period of micro-gravity as VSS Unity coasts to apogee, although, being pilots, they will remain securely strapped in throughout," reads a statement.

If the mission is successful, Virgin Galactic will earn bragging rights to being the first commercial launch to send a human to (or at least very near) space without the support of a government space agency.

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Branson's billionaire brethren, Musk and Bezos, have yet to achieve their own aims to send humans beyond the pull of Earth's gravity well, although SpaceX and Blue Origin are working with very different and more powerful vehicles. SpaceX, in particular, has been going through the lengthy process of having its Crew Dragon spaceship certified and tested by NASA for its missions. 

If this week's SpaceShipTwo test is delayed for some reason by say, more than a few months, it's conceivable SpaceX could send astronauts to the International Space Station first.

But Virgin Galactic says it's more interested in making sure its flights to space are safe. The company's planned commercial space flights for tourists have been pushed back several times by setbacks, including a crash that killed one of the company's test pilots.

If all goes well, though, Branson may get his Christmas wish of sending humans to space and getting one step closer to being his own first official passenger.

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