...$50 Million For An Orbital Flight, Virgin Galactic And More...

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Wednesday's flight was used as the launch pad for an even more ambitious private space race. Hotel chain owner Robert Bigelow is sponsoring a $50 million prize to the first team to put into orbit a private spacecraft carrying five to seven people. Published reports say Bigelow will put up at least half the money himself in an attempt to develop vehicles that can dock with a new inflatable space station he's developing near Las Vegas. NASA is reportedly helping out in the development of the space station. Bigelow's announcement ran along side news of a collaboration between Virgin Airways founder Sir Richard Branson and the SpaceShipOne creators for a new commercial space venture. Two days before yesterday's launch, Branson announced the creation of Virgin Galactic, a company that plans to build five SpaceShipOne-inspired ships to start routine space tourism flights. Branson said he's been thinking about the concept for 10 years but the Paul Allen/Scaled Concepts project cracked the technological barriers. American Mojave Aerospace Ventures ships would carry up to five passengers on suborbital flights, but Branson said orbital flights and establishing a space hotel are also on his mind. He hopes to have the first paying customers (at about $200,000 each ... start you bake sales, now) on suborbital flights within three years. Rutan said the first two commercial passengers would be himself and Branson. Also in the works is an annual X Prize Cup event and ... a reality television show.