Virgin spaceship gets new runway

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The world's first commercial passenger spaceship moved a step closer to deployment Friday as tycoon Richard Branson unveiled a new runway at a remote New Mexico spaceport.

Branson and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson hosted a ceremony marking the completion of the main runway at Spaceport America, near the town of Las Cruces where the Virgin Galactic project is based.

"This is the beginning of the second space age and we are proud to have been supporters of this part of the story.

"From here we will see, perhaps daily flights into space, but also scientists, explorers of new opportunities beyond our planet," he told reporters.

SpaceShipTwo, which could carry paying customers into suborbital space by early 2012, had its maiden flight in the California desert in March.

The aircraft -- re-named the VSS Enterprise -- will fly past Friday high above the new two-mile (3.2-kilometer) long, 200-foot (60-meter) wide runway in tandem with its mothership, known as WhiteKightTwo or Eve.

Virgin Galactic, which aims to become the world's first company to promote space tourism, has already collected 45 million dollars in deposits from more than 340 people who have reserved seats aboard the six-person craft.

Virgin started taking deposits from people wanting to become astronauts in 2005, and the project is 18 months away from carrying people into space, Branson said.

Speaking earlier to broadcaster CNN, he said: "We'll do many, many, many test flights over the next 12 months to maybe 18 months before we actually send people up into space.

"But we're entering the last stages of the test program and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel now," he added.

Fares start at 200,000 dollars.

WK2 will carry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15 kilometers) before dropping the smaller spaceship and allowing it to fire up its rocket motor to blast up to the brink of space.

Once it has reached suborbital space, SpaceShipTwo passengers will be able to view the Earth from portholes next to their seats, or unbuckle their seatbelts and float in zero gravity.

The aircraft is 60 feet (18 meters) long and its cabin is similar in size to a Falcon 900 executive jet, "allowing maximum room for the astronauts to float in zero gravity," according to the company.

Guests for the runway dedication ceremony include people who have already paid deposits to be among the first to fly into space aboard the Virgin craft.

"Initially we are going to be doing suborbital flights," Branson told CNN. "In time we'll go to orbital flights. And, you know, one day ... we hope to build a hotel in space."

Virgin officials are "also thinking about intercontinental travel at a fraction of the time that it currently takes to go from, you know, say America to Australia."

So who will be the first space tourists?

"I suppose one of the privileges of owning the spaceship company is I'm able to take my family up," said Branson. "So my father and mother keep saying 'hurry up,' because they're entering their 90s now."

Branson said his parents "very much want to go. And obviously, being weightless with the aches and pains they won't have to worry about. They'll be floating about."

Branson said that his children, both in their 20s, also want to travel but "are happy to wait."

"And obviously, the engineering genius behind this will be on board, as well," he said, referring to Burt Rutan, the designer of the Voyager aircraft, which made aviation history in 1986 by flying around the world without stopping or refueling.

© 2010 AFP

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