Commercial spaceship roll-out revs space tourism

Virgin Galactic is in the final stages of developing and testing commercial sub-orbital space vehicles based on the prototype SpaceShipOne

Looking to keep the hype machine revved as customers wait at least another year, space tourism company Virgin Galactic today will debut the suborbital SpaceShipTwo spacecraft it expects will take the first space tourists on a ride they’ll never forget.

The SpaceShipTwo showing is a major step on a long road Virgin Galactic is taking to develop what it calls the world’s first commercial space line providing private sector access to space using an environmentally benign launch system for people, payload and science.

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Virgin Galactic is in the final stages of developing and testing commercial sub-orbital space vehicles based on the prototype SpaceShipOne. The current launch aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, made a splash this summer by flying at the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and has made 22 flights during her test phase.

WhiteKnightTwo will carry the pressurized spacecraft SpaceShipTwo to about 50,000ft, where SpaceShipTwo, which will be known as Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Enterprise after today, will release and fire a rocket taking it to about 360,000ft at speeds over Mach 3, Virgin says. SpaceShipTwo then glides back to a runway landing.

Virgin says the SpaceShipTwo’s design will be refined and completed during an extensive test flying program, and it will be an entirely new vehicle capable of carrying up to 6 passenger astronauts and up to 2 pilot astronauts into space on a sub-orbital flight.

More than 300 people have paid almost $40 million in ticket deposits to get on the flights, according to London-based Virgin. Virgin Galactic is currently offering the sub-orbital flights for $200,000. Other space flight groups such as Space Adventures can charge $3 to $5 million for space flights. Space Adventures sets up flights to the International Space Station and has or will host a variety of high-profile flyers such as ex-Microsoft developer Charles Simonyi, computer game entrepreneur Richard Garriott and tech industry icon Esther Dyson.

Scaled Composites is building the Virgin Galactic spaceships which are based on vehicles that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

In July, Virgin Galactic sold a 32% stake of the company, which is valued at about $900 million, to an Abu Dhabi-based investor raising $280 million to help fund future test-flight program. Virgin Galactic stated that it expects the capital infusion to fully fund the company to its commencement of commercial operations. The Virgin Group has spent over $100 million on its space flight venture since forming it in 2004.

With the investment Abu Dhabi's Aabar Group gets exclusive rights to host Virgin space tourist and scientific flights. The group also said it wants to pay an extra $100 million to fund a program to launch small satellites of its own into orbit, and will build spaceport facilities in Abu Dhabi. US regulators and others must approve the deal.

According to Forbes.com, the investment may not be the last big financial splash the space company makes: "The aim over a bit of time is to try to IPO the business," said a spokesman for Virgin Group. He said the procedure would follow a similar template seen at Virgin Blue, the Australian airline floated in 2003; Virgin Mobile UK, floated in 2004; and Virgin Mobile USA, floated in 2007. The entire Virgin Group even went public in 1986, but was bought back by Virgin's billionaire owner, Richard Branson. Such a move by Virgin Galactic would be a couple years away at least, observers said.

Commercializing space is a hot topic in some circles. Recently the aerospace consultancy Futron said that as much as $1.5 billion may be up for grabs for commercial space operations in the next ten years.

But while there has been a positive vibe around the commercial space industry in recent months, such optimism needs to be tempered because there are a host of issues the government, namely the Federal Aviation Administration needs to address before commercial space operations can truly blast off, according to a recent report from watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office.

For example, the FAA faces challenges in ensuring that it has a sufficient number of staff with the necessary expertise to oversee the safety of commercial space launches and spaceport operations, the GAO stated.

The FAA will need to determine whether its current safety regulations are appropriate for all types of commercial space vehicles, operations, and launch sites, the GAO stated. If the industry begins to expand, as senior FAA officials predict, to 200 to 300 annual launches, a reassessment of the FAA’s resources and areas of expertise would be appropriate, the GAO stated.

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