By Irene Klotz
PALO ALTO, CALIF. Feb 27 Virgin Galactic,
an offshoot of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, expects to test
fly its first spacecraft beyond the Earth's atmosphere this
year, with commercial suborbital passenger service to follow in
2013 or 2014, company officials said on Monday.
Nearly 500 customers have signed up for rides on
SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot spaceship being built
and tested by Scaled Composites, an aerospace company founded by
aircraft designer Burt Rutan and now owned by Northrop Grumman.
The suborbital flights, which cost $200,000 per person, are
designed to reach an altitude of about 68 miles (109 km), giving
fliers a few minutes to experience zero gravity and glimpse
Earth set against the blackness of space.
"In the suborbital area, there are a lot of things to be
done. This is an area that has been essentially absent for about
four decades," said Neil Armstrong, who was a test pilot for the
1960s-era X-15 research plane before becoming a U.S. astronaut
and commander of the first mission to land on the moon.
"There's a lot of opportunity," Armstrong told about 400
people attending the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers
Conference in Palo Alto, California. "I certainly hope that some
of the new approaches will prove to be profitable and useful."
Virgin Galactic is the most visible of a handful of
companies developing spaceships for tourism, research,
educational and business purposes.
SpaceShipTwo, the first of Virgin's planned five-ship fleet,
has completed 31 atmospheric test flights - 15 attached to its
carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, and 16 glide tests, William
Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic's vice president of special projects,
said in a speech to the conference.
Preparations for the ship's first rocket-powered flights are
under way at Scaled Composites' Mojave, California, plant and
expected to take place this year.
"We hope to have the rocket motor in the spaceship later
this year and start powered flight testing," Virgin Galactic
chief test pilot David Mackay told the conference.
"We would like to be the first to do this, but we're not in
a race with anyone. This is not a Cold War-era space race."
"We flow pretty quickly from first powered flight to first
flight to space and then it's not terribly long from there until
we have our first commercial flight to space," Pomerantz told
He said passenger service could begin in 2013 or 2014,
depending on the results of the test flights and other factors,
such as pilot training.
No one knows what the suborbital spaceflight market might be
worth, but Andrew Nelson, chief operating officer of XCOR
Aerospace, another aspiring commercial spaceline, put the figure
at $1 trillion.
XCOR, which announced on Monday it had closed a $5 million
round of equity funding, now has enough money to manufacture its
Lynx suborbtial vehicle. The company charges $90,000 for rides.
When asked about the potential impact of a commercial
suborbital industry, Armstrong noted that the X-15 program,
designed to investigate the problems of high-speed,
high-altitude flight and devise possible solutions, helped
United States become the world's largest aeronautical product
"We're in an entirely new environment now," Armstrong said,
"with different objectives, different participants, different
goals. We can't imagine all the opportunities that exist."