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Virgin Galactic Plane Prepares for Space Tourists

Virgin Galactic Plane Prepares for Space Tourists
By Adam Dickter

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Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is offering $200,000 flights on a supersized space plane between 2011 and 2012. All you have to do is plunk down a 10 percent deposit to soar far above the Earth. The VMS Enterprise is the first of an anticipated fleet of five ships and reportedly has 300 bookings despite warnings of "rocket plane roulette."
 


Richard Branson has some space to rent. It's about 62 miles above the Earth, and the price set by the billionaire Virgin Group founder and chairman is $200,000 per person for a three-day package, including training time.

Perhaps years ahead of its launch, Virgin Galactic's "Mission Control" is offering potential tourists a chance to "Book Your Place In Space" by applying online and plunking down a 10 percent deposit with one of its "space agents" around the world.

"This will be a trip like no other," says Branson in a promotional video. "It will give those who travel with us unique and life-changing perspective on our planet."

Heavy Price for Weightlessness

Wayfaring space tourists may blast off sometime between 2011 and 2012, if testing of the new Virgin Galactic space plane is successful. Among the highlights are several minutes of zero gravity as the ship hovers on the edge of space.

Branson's $250 million project is based on a design that won the Ansari X prize for its spaceworthiness in 2004, after it reached an altitude of 367,442 feet, or 69.6 miles, a new record for a civilian craft. Rather than blast off from a launchpad, the plane takes off attached to a large mother ship and then separates high in the atmosphere for its journey to the stars.

A supersized version of that craft -- at 60 feet long more than double the prototype -- was unveiled Monday at Scaled Composites in the Mojave Desert, where it has been under construction for a year. It was christened the VMS Enterprise, which could be both a tribute to the famous Star Trek ship and a nod to the envelope-pushing field of space travel.

The first of an anticipated fleet of five ships, the Enterprise, also called SpaceShipTwo, was designed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, whose other projects include Voyager, the first aircraft to fly around the world without landing or refueling.

Is It Safe?

Branson says he already has 300 passengers ready for the first round of flights, including celebrities, scientists and wealthy thrill-seekers. Since the plane only carries six passengers, that means a long waiting list, with each flight grossing $1.2 million.

But in addition to the steep price tag, some potential passengers may be put off by the risk of what is still an unproven industry.

Virgin Galactic was put on hold for a while after an experimental engine exploded at the California test site in July 2007, killing three workers and injuring three others. Virgin's web site features a tab on safety promoting the fact that it rejected many designs for spacecraft before settling on the current model.

"Our excitement in 2002 on discovering Burt Rutan's plans for SpaceShipOne focused on a number of design features which we believed in their own right could make the vehicles many thousands of times safer than any manned spacecraft of the past," the company says.

Writing in SpaceDaily.com recently, Jeffrey F. Bell, a professor of planetary science at the University of Hawaii, suggested that companies offering space travel may be playing "rocket plane roulette."

"The romantic half of my brain would really like to see these businesses succeed and prosper, but the rational half tells me that they are heading for a series of fatal accidents that will be financial and public-relations disasters," Bell wrote.

Analyzing an early history of rocket planes, he found that 10 of them were destroyed, resulting in the deaths of five pilots and two injuries.
 

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