Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Readies For Commercial Flights

Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's commercial space flight venture, has announced that it will run test flights of its rocket-powered spaceship by 2011. Will Whitehorn, the company's president, claimed that Virgin had secured funding for its "spaceline" operations and would be turning a profit in as little as two years after launching its first commercial flight.


$200,000 tickets on the spaceship have sold to over 300 eager space tourists, whose deposits have plunked a good $45 million in Virgin's coffers. Another $280 million from an Abu Dhabi-backed investment firm that purchased a 32 percent stake in the company differentiates Virgin Galactic from other commercial space ventures that are still scrounging for funding.

Abu Dhabi hopes its investment in Virgin's spaceline will transform the sheikdom into a hub for space tourism. Though Abu Dhabi has plans to build its own spaceport, New Mexico is currently Virgin's launching pad of choice.

While Branson's space efforts have drawn attention thanks to his flashy reputation, other companies are progressing toward commercial space operations as well. NASA recently granted millions of dollars to five U.S. firms that, as a result of Obama's proposed budget cuts, will assume much of the space agency's historic human space flight mission. Virgin Galactic's focus on space tourism and its mix of private and government funding, however, sets the company apart. 

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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