May 7, 2009

Virgin Galactic: Space Tourism And Beyond

The president of Virgin Galactic says the company's plans to take passengers into space are just the beginning of a series of space exploration ploys.

In an interview with Reuters, Virgin Galactic's Will Whitehorn said the company has collected $40 million from 300 people on a waiting list for space tourist flights. The list includes high-profile names including physicist Stephen Hawking and ex-racing driver Niki Lauda.

Each person on that list was willing to give Virgin $200,000.

"We needed to know we had a sound business plan," Whitehorn told Reuters from the sidelines of the FIPP World Magazine Congress.

The firm is currently undergoing tests in hopes of earning a license from the Federal Aviation Authority.

Whitehorn said Virgin's launch technology is much more environmentally friendly than that of current agencies, such as NASA. Virgin uses a jet carrier aircraft to launch a spaceship into sub-orbit rather than using Earth-based rocket launch technology.

Additionally, Virgin's spacecraft is made up of non-metallic materials, which are lighter than those used on NASA's space shuttles.

Whitehorn has great expectations for Virgin's spacecraft beyond simple space tourism. He told Reuters the craft could one day be used as a commercial alternative to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station or for unmanned flights for research purposes.

He also mentioned the possibility of one day being able to launch a variety of payloads into space.

"We could put all of our server farms in space quite easily," said Whitehorn.

On "a 20-year horizon," Whitehorn said he foresees the capability of carrying passengers to Earth based destinations in spacecrafts outside of the atmosphere instead of using a plane.  A trip from Britain to Australia could be completed in about 2-1/2 hours, he said.

Virgin has a rival in the field of space tourism. Private firm SpaceX, headed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and early PayPal investor Elon Musk, has its own plans to carry passengers into space.

But Virgin is determined to be the first to carry tourists into space, Whitehorn said.

"There's only been 500 people in space so far, and each has cost $50 to $100 million on average," he said. "Every astronaut is an environmentalist."


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