Virgin Galactic gears up for first powered test flights since deadly 2014 crash

$250,000 for a ride into space
$250,000 for a ride into space

Richard Branson's company Virgin Galactic has promised Stephen Hawking, Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher a ride to space.

But a 2014 test flight of the company's space plane ended in tragedy and derailed Branson's ambitions for commercial space travel. Years have come and gone without any indicators of when the first commercial launch could feasibly take place.

On Wednesday, however, Virgin Galactic confirmed that a major milestone on the company's road to recovery is around the corner.

The first powered test flights of its spaceship since the 2014 accident are on track to take place "later this fall," the company's Vice President of Communications Christine Choi told CNNMoney on Wednesday.

If all goes according to plan, the first paying customers could be on board a Virgin Galactic flight by the end of 2018.

Related: Branson! Musk! Bezos! The billionaire space race throwdown

Like fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, Branson has long been a fan of spaceflight. He was inspired by the Ansari XPrize competition that was the catalyst for the very first privately funded manned trip to space, flown in a reusable spacecraft called SpaceShipOne.

Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, with the goal of selling tickets -- which cost $250,000 each -- aboard a space plane that travels to the border of outer space to briefly experience weightlessness and enjoy the view before returning home.

Over the course of a decade, Branson's space outfit built and tested SpaceShipTwo, called VSS Enterprise, before the spacecraft exploded on October 31, 2014 during its fourth powered test flight ever, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

The company has been recuperating ever since. In December, its new SpaceShipTwo, called VSS Unity, took to the skies for the first time in an unpowered "glide" test. They're meant to help work out any kinks in Unity's landing system.

Powered tests go a step further by actually firing up the spaceship's rocket motors. If VSS Unity proves up to the task during the powered test flights, Branson could very well fly on a trip to space by mid-2018, according to Bloomberg.

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