October 22, 2010

Main Runway At Spaceport America Complete

Virgin Galactic will pass another milestone today in its efforts to bring commercial spaceflight to reality.

Billionaire Richard Branson and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson will host a ceremony later today marking the completion of the main runway at Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert.

Branson told CNN on Friday that Virgin is "getting close" to sending tourists into space.

"The mothership has been finished and flying for a while now," he said. "We'll do many, many, many test flights over the next 12 months to maybe 18 months before we actually send people up into space.

"But we're entering the last stages of the test program and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel now," he said.

SpaceShipTwo had its maiden flight in the California desert in March.  The ship will start carrying paying customers into suborbital space by early 2012.

The aircraft will fly past Friday above the two-mile long, 200-foot wide runaway along with its mothership "WhiteKnightTwo" (WK2).

Virgin Galactic has already collected $45 million in deposits from over 340 people who have reserved seats aboard the six-person craft.

Branson said Virgin started taking deposits from people wanting to become astronauts in 2005, and the project is 18 months away from carrying people into space.

The price to take the trip to space aboard the aircraft starts at $200,000.

WK2 will carry SpaceshipTwo to about 50,000 feet above the Earth before dropping the smaller spaceship and allowing it to fire up its rocket motor to blast up to the brink of space.

Once it has reached suborbital space, the passengers will be able to view the Earth from portholes next to their seats, or unblock their seatbelts and float in zero gravity.

According to the company, SpaceShipTwo is 60 feet long and its cabin is similar in size to a Falcon 900 executive jet, "allowing maximum room for the astronauts to float in zero gravity."

"Each passenger gets the same seating position with two large windows... so that, if you don't want to float free in space, and you'd rather just remain in your seat, you still get a great chance to see the view."

"No more squabbling over who has the best seat!" it adds.

Guests for the runway dedication ceremony include future passengers of the SpaceShipTwo who have already paid their way to be the first aboard.

"Initially we are going to be doing sub orbital flights," Branson told CNN. "In time we'll go to orbital flights. And, you know, one day ... we hope to build a hotel in space."

Virgin officials are "also thinking about intercontinental travel at a fraction of the time that it currently takes to go from, you know, say America to Australia."

Branson said his parents, who are entering their 90s now, "very much want to go. And obviously, being weightless with the aches and pains they won't have to worry about. They'll be floating about."

"And obviously, the engineering genius behind this will be on board, as well," he said, referring to Burt Rutan, the designer of the Voyager aircraft.


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