Virgin to test rocket spaceship

2010-03-03 19:04

Dubai - Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic plans to begin powered test flights of its rocket spaceship by 2011, a key milestone before launching regular service by mid-decade, the space tourism start-up's president said on Wednesday.

Will Whitehorn didn't specify when the company would put paying customers into space, but said he believes most of the major hurdles in the project have already been cleared.

"We're not looking at a huge amount of time," Whitehorn said during a visit to Dubai for a spaceflight conference. "As the year breaks into next year, we'll start moving into rocket motor testing and then into space."

Virgin has been signing up customers vying for the chance to be among its first passengers.

Whitehorn said the company has received nearly 330 bookings from customers who have put down deposits of up to $200 000 each to secure a seat. The company has so far taken in about $45m in deposits, he said.

'When we're ready'

That enthusiasm has the company expecting to be profitable within two years of starting operations, Whitehorn said.

The start-up date remains uncertain. The Virgin Galactic president said only that commercial operations would begin "when we're ready", though he suggested the company would be ferrying passengers to space within five years.

"If it's not, I'll be retiring," he told reporters with a smile.

Virgin Galactic got a big financial boost last July when Aabar Investments, a state-backed investment fund from the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi, agreed to pump about $280m into the company in exchange for nearly a third of the start-up. Abu Dhabi is the capital and the largest of the seven semi-autonomous sheikdoms making up the United Arab Emirates.

Whitehorn said Virgin, unlike some other commercial spaceflight companies, is not looking for any additional funding for now.

The Enterprise

Parent company Virgin Group has pumped more than $100m into its space flight venture since forming it in 2004. The company is working to develop flight vehicles with Scaled Composites, the Mojave, California-based aeronautical firm that won the X Prize to build the first privately funded manned spaceship.

Virgin Galactic has yet to show that it can put paying customers in orbit, or make a profit doing so. Its bullet-shaped SpaceShipTwo rocket-powered vehicle will piggyback to 50 000 feet on a large jet-powered plane before blasting into suborbital space.

The craft is based on Scaled Composites founder and famed aviation designer Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne prototype that won the X Prize in 2004.

Virgin unveiled the first of its SpaceShipTwo vehicles, christened "Enterprise", in Mojave in December.

Whitehorn said the ship has largely wrapped up ground testing and will now undergo a series of flight tests, including being dropped from its launch vehicle for a number of unpowered glides.

Meanwhile, Virgin is working to finish a launch site in New Mexico, which this week enacted a law that aims to promote commercial space flight by requiring passengers to give their consent and be informed of the risks involved.