Virgin Galactic Eyes Passenger Space Travel

As NASA ends its shuttle program this week, a private company is gearing up for business. Virgin Galactic is hoping to begin offering rides into space soon. The company is still vague about its exact timeline for a launch, though official hope for a liftoff in about 18 months.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

That was Steve talking to Jennifer 8 Lee.

Now, as NASA ends its shuttle program this week, a private company is gearing up for business.

Our last word in business today is: Virgin Galactic - that's the company that's offering rides into space. The CEO is George Whitesides. He used to be chief of staff at NASA. And he describes what passengers can expect on their trip, in a spacecraft about the size of a private jet.

Mr. GEORGE WHITESIDES (CEO, Virgin Galactic): We will take them up to 50,000 feet using our carrier aircraft. When we release them and the rocket motor fires, they execute a gamma turn to go vertical and they shoot upwards. And they'll top out around 100 kilometers, which is the boundary of space. And they'll be able to get out their seats and float around in the cabin and look out very large windows to experience the beauty of earth below and the Milky Way above.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Passengers float in weightlessness for a few minutes, though the whole trip lasts a few hours. Several days of training are required, although the biggest hurdle may be financial.

Mr. WHITESIDES: Right now, the Russians are charging NASA over $50 million to go into space and we're charging $200,000. So that's a pretty huge change. Now, we're doing something that's a bit different. But I think this is the first step of price reductions.

KELLY: Only about 500 people have ever been in space. That's about the same number of people who have put down deposits with Virgin Galactic. They'll depart from a spaceport in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides says in the future he hopes space passengers could use their local airports. It's just one of many possibilities for the future of space tourism.

Mr. WHITESIDES: Some people have talked about doing point-to-point space travel, so that, you know, you could go from New York to Tokyo in 45 minutes. Some people talk about going orbital, maybe trips up to the International Space Station. And who knows, maybe someday space hotels and even trips around the moon.

INSKEEP: But you notice he says things like maybe, some day. First things first, Virgin Galactic has to get a flight off the ground. The company is still vague about its exact timeline for a launch, although Whitesides hopes for a liftoff in about 18 months.

And that's the business news on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

KELLY: And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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