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Virgin Signs Up 150 for Its Space Flights

July 18, 2006|From Reuters

FARNBOROUGH, England — Former soap-opera star Victoria Principal, designer Philippe Starck and a senior member of an unidentified royal family have all bought tickets for the world's first tourist space flights, planned for 2008.

Virgin Group, owned by billionaire businessman and part-time daredevil Richard Branson, said Monday that it was on track to launch the suborbital flights and had sold tickets to its first 150 passengers.

Its commercial space line, called Virgin Galactic, announced at a news conference at the Farnborough International Airshow near London that it had collected $15.6 million in deposits for the flights, which cost $200,000 a ticket.

Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said 300 potential passengers were going through a detailed reservation process, and 60,000 had shown interest through the venture's website.

Bryan Singer, director of the hit film "Superman Returns," has also signed up.

Virgin may have been the inspiration for a scene in Singer's movie that features a suborbital spacecraft, though that vessel's maiden flight almost ends in disaster when an electrical failure sends it hurtling into a baseball stadium.

The company expects design work on the SpaceShipTwo craft to be completed next year.

"Everything is progressing on time and on budget. I think we will be pulling it out of the hangar next summer," Whitehorn said.

The spacecraft to be used by Virgin is based on SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 won the $10-million Ansari X prize offered to the first private organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.

Virgin is building five models of SpaceShipTwo, a larger version.

The craft is attached to a larger plane -- White Knight Two -- for take-off and then detaches from the carrier aircraft at 50,000 feet before accelerating rapidly and entering suborbital space.

Virgin plans to launch the venture from the Mojave Desert and move to a permanent base in New Mexico in 2010.

The company and the state of New Mexico announced a name for the launch base, Spaceport America, on Monday.

Virgin said customers would spend 15 minutes in space, including five minutes of weightlessness.

Branson has said he planned to be on the first commercial Virgin Atlantic flight along with his children and parents -- including his 91-year-old father.

Competitors include Space Adventures Ltd., a U.S. firm that has sent two space tourists on a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station for $20 million each.

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