Virgin Galactic's $200,000 Space Ride Inches Nearer

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Virgin Galactic, the Sir Richard Branson-founded future space tourism provider, Thursday announced that the controllable (on/off) rocket motor to be used in SpaceShipTwo has successfully completed phase-one testing. Virgin believes its hybrid nitrous oxide system is the largest of its kind, capable of propelling payloads (or customers) to more than 2500 mph and heights of more than 65 miles following an aerial launch from its twin-fuselage mothership, Eve. The actual tourism vehicle (SpaceShipTwo) is in the final stages of construction and is expected to embark on its flight test program later in 2009. Virgin is touting the propulsion system as environmentally low-impact, due to the relatively short burn of the rocket motor, thanks to the aerial launch. Going to space via SpaceShipTwo, according to Branson, will involve about 75 percent less pollution per passenger than a trip from London to New York (presumably via airliner). So what's next?

The rocket motor will continue "exhaustive tests" and SpaceShipTwo will begin flight testing. Testing for all key elements -- rocket, spaceship, mothership -- "will be extensive," according to Virgin. If all goes well, Virgin Galactic will offer sub-orbital space flight to "space tourists" within years and may have first flights prior to 2011. The company says that some 300 people have already placed $40 million in deposits to secure their spot on a future (roughly six-minute) sub-orbital space ride. But the company also has its eyes on the prize of commercial use and if the price is right -- and they believe it will be substantially lower than any available competition -- they'll likely find many takers for a wide range of applications.