Branson unveils spaceship that will launch civilians into heavens

Have $200,000 and dream of space travel? You could soon blast off with Virgin Galactic

The man behind Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic Airways is launching a new venture that's out of this world.


Virgin's founder, British billionaire Richard Branson, is throwing his entrepreneurial muscle behind a company that will offer private citizens the opportunity to travel into outer space -- for $200,000. Known as Virgin Galactic, the company plans to formally unveil the world's first manned commercial spaceship, SpaceShipTwo, in the Mojave Desert later today.

Virgin Galactic reports that about 300 people have forked over the $200,000, or at least a hefty deposit, to take a flight into space as astronaut tourists.

"This is truly a momentous day," said Branson in a statement. "The team has created not only a world first but also a work of art. The unveiling of [SpaceShipTwo] takes the Virgin Galactic vision to the next level and continues to provide tangible evidence that this ambitious project is not only moving rapidly, but also making tremendous progress toward our goal of safe commercial operation."

However, the company didn't say when the craft will undergo a required "extensive test flying" program or when it will start carrying passengers into space.

An engineering team, headed by Branson's Virgin Galactic partner, Burt Rutan, began building the spacecraft in 2007. The vehicle is designed to carry two pilots and six passengers into a sub-orbital flight. The company also hopes the craft will be able to carry scientific equipment and payloads into space for NASA, after the space agency retires its space shuttle fleet next year.

If all goes as planned, the venture should become the world's first commercial space passenger line.

The new spacecraft is set to be unveiled as darkness falls this evening at the Mojave Air and Spaceport, according to Virgin Galactic. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson are expected to christen the spacecraft the "Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Enterprise."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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