Commercial spaceflight is off to a slow start. This makes sense, of course—going to space is hard: it's dangerous, it's expensive, it's technologically challenging, and it's a whole new legal frontier. Few nations, let alone companies, have successfully left planet Earth.
While there are a few private spaceflight companies looking to ferry tourists to the edge of space, the one that seems to be leading the pack is Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. But although the company has rushed to collect checks from would-be space travelers, Virgin Galactic has yet to receive the permit from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to actually take people to space, says the CBC.*
Almost 700 people have paid $200,000 to $250,000 a seat to a company that doesn't yet have the legal capacity to deliver. CBC:
Known as a Reusable Launch Vehicle Mission Licence, this little document is the final piece of the commercial space travel puzzle that Virgin Galactic began assembling in 2004.
Without it, only test-flight personnel like former astronauts and military pilots can fly aboard SpaceShipTwo, the most recent evolution of the company's supersonic craft.
"It's one of our remaining major milestones. We will be the first, I hope, commercial operator to receive one of these licences for human space flight," Attenborough says.
Even the company's billionaire owner, Sir Richard Branson, who has said publicly that he and his two adult children will be passengers on the first public flight, cannot legally fly in SpaceShipTwo until the licence is obtained.
As we've written previously, Virgin Galactic has been having trouble: for each year of the past decade, private spaceflight was always just a year or so away, according to Branson.
*This sentence was edited to clarify that the permitting process is ongoing. Virgin also got in touch to reiterate that "The application process is well under way and Virgin Galactic is confident that the FAA award will be made in good time for it to begin commercial service later this year."