Branson unveils spaceship that will launch civilians into heavens

Have US$200,000 and dream of space travel? You could soon blast off with Virgin Galactic

The man behind Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic Airways is launching a new venture that's out of this world.

Literally.

Virgin Founder and British billionaire Richard Branson is now throwing his entrepreneurial muscle behind Virgin Galactic , his latest business venture. The company later today plans to formally unveil its commercial spaceship - SpaceShipTwo - in the Mojave Desert.

Virgin Galactic reports that about 300 people have forked over US$200,000, or at least a hefty deposit, to take a flight into space as astronaut tourists.

"This is truly a momentous day," said Branson in a statement. "The team has created not only a world first but also a work of art. The unveiling of [SpaceShipTwo] takes the Virgin Galactic vision to the next level and continues to provide tangible evidence that this ambitious project is not only moving rapidly, but also making tremendous progress towards our goal of safe commercial operation."

However, the company didn't say when the craft will undergo the required "extensive test flying" program or when it will start carrying tourists into space.

An engineering team, headed by Branson's Virgin Galactic partner Burt Rutan, began building the spacecraft in 2007. The vehicle is designed to carry two pilots and six passengers into a sub-orbital flight. The company also hope the craft can carry scientific equipment and payloads into space as NASA retires its space shuttle fleet next year.

If all goes as planned, the venture should become the world's first commercial space line, capable of providing civilians with access to space travel.

The new spacecraft is set to be unveiled as darkness falls this evening at the Mojave Air and Spaceport , according to the company. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Govenor Bill Richardson are expected to christen the spacecraft the "Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Enterprise".

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Sharon Gaudin

Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld (US)
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