Earth render 1” (Public Domain) by Burnt Pineapple Productions

Whatever else happens in 2020, hopes are high that this could be the year when the first commercial passengers will be able to experience what it’s like to be an astronaut first hand. In doing so, they will join a select band of only around 600 people who have been able to see Earth from space since the very first manned missions took off in 1961 with Yuri Gagarin beating the US astronaut Alan Shepherd Jr by around a month.

Leading the race to transport passengers into space is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and the company believe that the finishing line is in sight for them, as well as the start of a whole exciting new era for man- and woman-kind.

Set up in 2004, there have been many setbacks for Virgin Galactic along the way, the most major of which was the tragic event in 2014 in which the VSS Enterprise broke apart on a test flight above the Mojave Desert. Sadly, co-pilot Mike Alsbury was killed, while pilot Peter Siebold sustained serious injuries.

It wasn’t for another two years that another Virgin Galactic flight took to the air in December 2016. But now, three years later, confidence is high that not only will passengers be taking off very soon, but that by the end of Summer 2021 the company will be profitable. Considering that they reported a loss of $73 million in the last quarter of 2019 this would represent quite a considerable turnaround.

Virgin Galactic X Prize” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Traveloscopy

There are certainly signs that there are many who would be prepared to pay the minimum of $250,000 required to book a place on a flight promising them a full six minutes of weightlessness. This is surely a sign of many people’s continuing fascination with all things space-related. This can be seen everywhere. Take the huge success of the 2013 movie Gravity, for example: movie authority Rotten Tomatoes gave it a whopping 96% score and it grossed $274,084,951 at the box office. Meanwhile, in the field of online casino, the branding behind online operator Space Casino arguably contributes to its popularity, and the platform even features extra-terrestrial-themed slots games with titles like Shooting Stars and Dark Vortex.

Already a number of celebrities are said to have booked their place on board once the flights start to operate including Leonardo Di Caprio, Justin Bieber and Sir Richard Branson himself. But proof that you don’t also have to be a star to get closer to the galaxy comes from the fact that by the end of February over 8,000 people had paid their £1,000 registration fee to be on the waiting list.

Virgin Galactic do, however, face competition from two other billionaires seemingly with money to burn. Both Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have their own companies who will soon be offering commercial flights. The former’s Space X is an even more ambitious operation than Virgin’s with plans to take tourists on orbits of the moon and even to set up a community on Mars, despite NASA’s reservations about the latter.

So this really could be the year that space travel moves from science fiction to fact for a number of people. And, just as early air travel moved from the preserve of the rich to something everyone can enjoy today, before long it could be within the reach of many of us.