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Spacecraft factory to break ground in Mojave

Spaceshiptwo A production facility that would build the world's first fleet of commercial spaceships is set to begin construction Tuesday at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The 68,000-square-foot facility, one of the first aircraft assembly plants to be built in the region in decades, will be home to the Spaceship Co., or TSC -- a joint venture owned by Mojave-based Scaled Composites and British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company.

TSC hopes to complete the complex by September 2011. It expects to build three White Knight aircraft, which resemble massive flying catamarans, and five smaller SpaceShipTwo rocket planes.

The rocket planes would be used this way: A rocket plane with six passengers on board, attached to the wings of the White Knight mother ship, would be flown to 50,000 feet, where it would be released. Then the rocket engine would ignite and propel the plane into suborbit.

TSC expects to employ up to 170 people when production is in full swing. It has begun posting job openings on its website for engineers and technicians.

Virgin Galactic, which says it has taken reservations and deposits from more than 380 people, hopes to make its first passenger flight next year from the yet-to-be finished Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The craft is to climb to the edge of space, about 60 miles above the Earth's surface.

At that suborbital altitude, passengers experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. The price for the experience: $200,000. The carrier plane, which resembles a flying catamaran because it has two fuselages, and the six-passenger rocket ship are in the midst of a test-flight program in Mojave.

The idea was developed by Burt Rutan, a pioneering aerospace engineer who founded Scaled Composites. Last week, Rutan announced that he plans to retire in April.

--W.J. Hennigan

Photo: The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, or VSS Enterprise, is released from the mothership, White Knight 2, also known as VMS Eve, over the Mojave last month. Credit: AP Photo/Clay Observatory for Virgina Galactic

 
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Andrea Chang
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