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Virgin Galactic eyes orbital trips for fare-paying passengers

December 16, 2010 |  3:35 pm

Mojave

Virgin Galactic, the world’s first space line, is looking to offer tourists a chance to orbit the Earth.

The company said in a statement Thursday that it was working with Sierra Nevada Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp. to develop a spacecraft capable of “orbital service for fare-paying passengers.”

Virgin Galactic is collaborating with both companies in their attempt to win NASA’s $200-million competition to design prototypes that can ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station after the space shuttle is retired in 2011.

It is a hotly contested competition in which a winner could potentially earn billions of dollars' worth of contracts as NASA’s means of transport. Seeing the potential windfall, a wide range of companies have entered the contest including aerospace giants such as Boeing Co. and privately funded start-ups such as Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

But Virgin Galactic wants to give wealthy tourists the chance to circle the Earth as well.

The company already offers trips to suborbit. Starting next year, Virgin Galactic plans to fly tourists to the edge of space, or about 60 miles above the Earth's surface, where passengers experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth.

The cost? $200,000.

The company says it has taken reservations and deposits from more than 400 people.

“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,” Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, said in a statement.

Branson did not indicate how much an orbital flight might cost, but added that "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."

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Boeing enters space tourism partnership

Successful test flight is giant step for SpaceX

-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the tarmac at Mojave Air and Space Port. Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

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