Branson's Virgin Galactic moves to return to space race

LONG BEACH, Calif. (Reuters) - Richard Branson said on Thursday his Virgin Galactic venture is eager to rejoin the race among rival billionaire entrepreneurs to send passengers and satellites into space, following a deadly accident 16 months ago.

The Virgin Galactic hanger is seen at Mojave airport in Mojave, California November 1, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

“To have three or four people who are fairly entrepreneurial competing with each other means we’ll be able to open up space at a fraction of the price that governments have been able to do so in the past,” Branson told Reuters as he toured Virgin Galactic’s 150,000-square-foot LauncherOne rocket design and manufacturing plant in Long Beach, California.

On Friday, Virgin Galactic plans to unveil its new SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot winged space plane designed to take thrill-seekers, researchers and commercial customers on five-minute hops into suborbital space, reaching altitudes of about 62 miles (100 km).

Virgin Galactic is moving ahead with plans to build its own space launchers, including the new passenger vehicle and LauncherOne rockets designed to lift small satellites starting as early as next year, company officials said.

Branson's rivals in the privately funded space race include SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, Amazon’s AMZN.O Jeff Bezos and Microsoft MSFT.O co-founder Paul Allen.

Branson's venture has been grounded since its first spaceship, designed and built by Northrop Grumman Corp's NOC.N Scaled Composites, was destroyed on Oct. 31, 2014, during a test flight in Mojave. The accident killed one pilot and dashed Virgin Galactic’s plans to start commercial operations as early as this year.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the accident, determined that the co-pilot prematurely released locks that pin the ship’s rotating tail section into place. The new spaceship includes a pin that prevents the pilots from unlocking the tail section too early, before aerodynamic forces have built up to keep the tail from rotating on its own.

The Spaceship Company, or TSC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Virgin Galactic, already had taken over manufacturing of the second spaceship in a planned fleet of five when the accident occurred.

“Ultimately, we want to be able to produce our own point-to-point aircraft,” Branson said. “The best way to do that is to be involved with every aspect of the experimentation and the build.”

Branson’s London-based Virgin Group and Aabar Investments, run by the Abu Dhabi government, combined have invested more than $500 million in Virgin Galactic, said company Chief Executive George Whitesides.

Virgin Galactic is selling rides on SpaceShipTwo for $250,000. So far, nearly 700 people have signed up, Whitesides said.

Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Joseph White and Tom Brown