Virgin sees space tourism as just the beginning

Thu May 7, 2009 11:26am EDT
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By Georgina Prodhan

LONDON (Reuters) - Long-haul trips could be made in spaceships instead of planes in 20 years' time if Virgin's efforts to commercialize space travel succeed, the president of Virgin Galactic told Reuters in an interview.

Will Whitehorn said Virgin's plans to take tourists into space were just a first stage that could open up a range of possibilities for the company including space science, computer server farms in space and replacing long-haul flights.

Virgin Galactic, part of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, has collected $40 million in deposits from would-be space tourists including physicist Stephen Hawking and ex-racing driver Niki Lauda, and hopes to start commercial trips within two years.

Whitehorn said the bookings from 300 people willing to pay $200,000 each for a space flight had convinced Virgin the venture was viable. It is currently running test flights and hopes soon to win a license from the Federal Aviation Authority.

"We needed to know we had a sound business plan," he said on the fringes of the FIPP World Magazine Congress, where he had been invited to speak on innovation.

Virgin claims that its technology, which releases a spaceship into sub-orbit in the air using a jet carrier aircraft, is more environmentally friendly than traditional ground-launched rocket technology.

The non-metallic materials from which the spaceship is built are also lighter and require less power than, for example, NASA's space shuttles, Whitehorn argues.

He foresees uses of the spaceship for science experiments, for example as an alternative to visiting the International Space Station or using unmanned flights for pharmaceuticals companies seeking to use microgravity to change particles.   Continued...

<p>Virgin Group's Founder billionaire Richard Branson (L) and Burt Rutan, president of Scaled Composites, wave from the window of Virgin Galactic's mothership WhiteKnightTwo during its public roll-out in Mojave, California July 28, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser</p>