Next Year at Oshkosh: SpaceShipTwo?

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Alex Tai & Wil Whitehorn from Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic President Wil Whitehorn can't guarantee it, but if at all possible SpaceShipTwo will be here at EAA AirVenture next summer. "But if not next year, definitely in 2009," he said. Speaking at a forum on Tuesday morning, he said the ship is under construction at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., and will start test flights early next year. It will carry six paying passengers and two pilots some 62 miles above the earth, so the craft will be much larger than SpaceShip One. A larger version of White Knight, the airplane that carries the spaceship to altitude, is also under construction and will start test flights next April. Alex Tai, who is developing the training program for future passengers, said the spaceship's controls and systems will be kept as simple as possible. He added that the two pilots will really fly the ship, not just be "Spam in a can" while the aircraft flies itself.

Tai also gave an update on plans for the experience that space tourists can expect. Each passenger will undergo three days of training that will include simulated G forces and simulated zero-gravity exercises. In flight, interior sounds of ship systems will be kept to a minimum so passengers can experience the true silence of space, he said. Whitehorn said the ultimate goals of Burt Rutan and Richard Branson, who have partnered in The Spaceship Company, extend beyond providing space tourism. "We need to find more efficient ways to operate in space," he said, including methods to deploy satellites, collect solar power and develop new industries. He added that the company has 200 travelers signed up at $200,000 each, but the goal is to reduce the price to about $75,000 to make the experience available to more people.