Virgin Galactic's space tourism venture moved a step closer to reality yesterday with the first touch down of SpaceShipTwo at Spaceport America on 22 Oct. This was also the celebration of opening the new runway at the spaceport, named "The Governor Bill Richardson Spaceway" after the current governor of New Mexico. About 600 people watched as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, carried by its mothership WhiteKnightTwo, glided down in the southern New Mexico desert.
Spaceport America is touted as the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport, and will serve as the headquarters for Virgin Galactic's suborbital spacecraft once the spaceport is complete. A giant hangar and other facilities are still under construction.
"I can't wait for our first day of commercial operations here," said Virgin Galactic founder and British billionaire Sir Richard Branson. "Today is very personal as our dream becomes more real."
British billionaire Sir Richard Branson - whose Virgin group has backed the venture - said the first passenger trip should take place within 18 months. The opening of the nearly two-mile (three-kilometre) runway comes less than two weeks after another major step for Sir Richard's Virgin Galactic company: the first solo glide flight of SpaceShip Two.
"Today is very personal as our dream becomes more real," Sir Richard said. "People are beginning to believe now. I think the drop flight two weeks ago, which went beautifully, I think it made people sit up and realize this is really reality."
More than 380 people have already paid at least $200,000 (£128,000) each for a three-hour flight, and Branson and family will be flying on the inaugural space flight. While SpaceShipTwo is designed to make short joyrides to suborbital space, Virgin Galactic has set its sights on orbital travel, too.
"Obviously, we want to move on to orbital after we've got suborbital under our belts, and maybe even before that," Branson said.
The company will aim to win a NASA contract to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, he said. The space agency plans to look to private space companies to take over this task once the space shuttle fleet retires next year.
"We plan to start work on an orbital program quite quickly," Branson said.
This new partnership between NASA and commercial spaceflight companies was authorized by a NASA authorization bill just signed into law by President Obama earlier this month.
Virgin Galactic has been making steady progress in readying its spaceship for flight.
SpaceShipTwo made its first ever solo test flight Oct. 10, when it was dropped by WhiteKnightTwo in midair and glided down to the ground.
The craft is set to make its first solo powered flight, when it will fire its rocket engines, in the next few months.
"Today we are closer to the dream that we all share than we have ever been," said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides.
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