Richard Branson this week took one small step for Virgin Galactic, and one giant leap for anyone who has ever dreamed of flying into space.
On a sunny runway in Oshkosh, Wisc. Tuesday, Branson signed a $280 million deal giving Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments about a third of the Virgin Galactic spaceline. Then he boarded the VMS Eve, the vehicle designed to carry and launch the company's SpaceShipTwo into space, for his first flight aboard the mothership.
The twin-fuselage craft is made of an all-carbon composite and can carry six passengers in its starboard hull. The second hull is reserved for science equipment and payload.
At an altitude of 50,000 feet, the spaceship detaches from the carrier and with a boost of its hybrid nitrous oxide rocket, propels into sub-orbital space at speeds over 2,500 mph to a height of more than 65 miles.
The launch from altitude uses considerably less fuel than traditional terrestrial launches, giving the vehicle a low carbon profile. Re-entry and landing are unpowered; the craft glides to a landing.
After his brief sub-orbital flight, Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, said the company will be ready to launch people and satellites into space "approximately 18 months from now."
In addition to making astronauts out of tourists, Virgin Galactic intends to conduct micro-gravity experimentation, atmospheric sampling, earth and space observation, and eventually launch small satellites from space.
In June, Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson broke ground on the world's first spaceport in the New Mexico desert. A 10,000-foot runway is expected to be complete by late summer 2010 and an 110,000 sq.-ft. terminal hangar facility is slated to be complete by early 2011.
Virgin Galactic reports that 85,000 people have registered on its Web site, and 300 have made reservations for space flight. The price for the approximately 2-hour flight is $200,000; a $20,000 deposit is required. Plans are to fly 500 people in the first year and 50,000 in the first 10 years.
"If it pays its way we'll be able to go from sub-orbital flights to orbital flights to hotels in space, " said Branson.
In 2008 Virgin Galactic signed a "memorandum of understanding" with NASA to "explore the potential for collaborations on the development of future space systems and support to commercial human spaceflight activities."
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