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Virgin Galactic Backing Private Sector Spacecraft Developers

December 17, 2010

Virgin Galactic (VG), the commercial space line owned by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, has announced plans to support two separate companies competing as part of a NASA-sponsored plan to stimulate private-sector spacecraft development.

The two firms, Sierra Nevada Space Systems (SNC) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC), have each prepared proposals for reusable winged vehicles that can launch on expendable rockets and land on runways–much like the US space agency’s own space shuttle program, which will be shuttered early in 2011–Irene Klotz of Reuters reported on Thursday.

The SNC and OSC designs were created as part of NASA’s $200 million Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDEV2), and VG has offered to market seats on both vehicles to its 400-plus individual customer base, the company said in a December 16 press release. They also said that they are looking into providing use of their WhiteKnightTwo mothership for use during test flights.

“Virgin Galactic has shown in the past few years how private sector investment and innovation can lead to a rapid transformation of stagnant technologies,” Branson said in a statement on Thursday. “We are now very close to making the dream of sub-orbital space a reality for thousands of people at a cost and level of safety unimaginable even in the recent past.”

“We know that many of those same people, including myself, would also love to take an orbital space trip in the future, so we are putting our weight behind new technologies that could deliver that safely whilst driving down the enormous current costs of manned orbital flight by millions of dollars,” he added. “Today’s announcement is an important step along the way to achieving our ultimate and long term goal of leading an industry which opens up the huge potential of space to everyone.”

In 2004, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne prototype earned the company a $10 million award as the first privately-funded craft to complete a human spaceflight, according to Klotz. VG is currently selling tickets for a seat on board the craft’s successor, SpaceShipTwo (also known as Enterprise), for $200,000. Those flights are currently scheduled to begin in about a year, says Reuters.

“Virgin Galactic is clearly breaking new ground in the commercial space market, and we are now very excited to have them on our team,” said OSC Senior Vice President Frank Culbertson. “This partnership”¦ carries a great deal of promise for achieving the kind of growth in commercial spaceflight that will help to make this a sustainable market in the future.”

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