/ 21 February 2008

Virgin Galactic plans more spaceships

Virgin Galactic, billionaire Richard Branson’s space travel venture, plans to order five more spaceships and aims to turn a profit in five years from its commercial launch in 2010, an official told Reuters on Thursday.

Prospective space travellers have so far placed deposits totalling more than $31-million for tickets that cost $200 000 each and would give them five minutes in space, said Alex Tai, the firm’s group director.

”In the short term, we have firm orders for five spaceships and options for seven … We believe there is a very strong market,” Tai said in an interview at the Singapore Airshow.

About 80 000 people from 120 countries have shown interest in these commercial space flights that are likely to start in 2010. Seriously interested travellers are asked to deposit at least $20 000, according to Virgin Galactic’s website.

”It’s silly to divide the $200 000 by that five minutes. It really is a life-time experience,” Tai said. Virgin, which aims to be the first to take paying passengers into space on a regular basis, will invest $25-million in the space programme, Tai said.

He declined to give the cost of each craft or the maker, though some parts will come from Pratt & Whitney, the jet engine unit of United Technologies.

Asked when the company would become profitable, Tai said: ”I imagine it will be inside the first five years.”

Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, unveiled last month and to be tested later this year, will be able to carry eight people into sub-orbital space. Virgin aims to start with one flight a week before ramping it up to 14 flights a week, Tai said.

For $200 000, Virgin will prepare space travellers over three days for their two-hour flight beyond Earth’s atmosphere that will culminate in five minutes in space. The three-day programme will include simulating a zero-gravity environment, showing travellers what it means to accelerate and decelerate quickly, as well as what the Earth looks like from space, Tai said.

The spaceship will initially be launched from Mojave, California, but will eventually take off from a space port in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic is one of several high-profile contenders in the new commercial space race.

Others include Astrium, the space arm of European aerospace firm Eads, Blue Origin, started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), created by PayPal founder Elon Musk, and Bigelow Aerospace, a venture aimed at creating space hotels, started by hotelier Robert Bigelow.

The leader in the budding sector is Virginia-based Space Adventures, which started the space tourism phenomenon in 2001 when it put US businessman Dennis Tito on a Russian Soyuz craft for a reported $20-million. – Reuters