Virgin Galactic Reaches Milestone In Space Tourism Industry

Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's space tourism venture, cleared a big hurdle Monday with its first powered test flight. Virgin Galactic plans to start taking "space tourists" for rides early next year. A ticket is expected to cost $200,000.

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The billionaire Richard Branson is happy this morning. His Virgin Galactic spacecraft successfully completed its first rocket-powered test flight.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Branson's high flying endeavor has been plagued with delays and technical problems, but on Monday, after an early morning flight from the California desert, the often flamboyant billionaire said history was being made.

Virgin Galactic spokesman Jeff Carr added that for the first time the company was able to able to prove the key components of the system worked in flight.

JEFF CARR: Assuming the test program continues as well as it has, they should be making that first flight to space by the end of this year and commencing commercial operations in early 2014.

KAUFMAN: But those commercials flight will be pricey. Very pricey. A cool $200,000 per passenger. The company says 600 people have already signed up. But just how big a market can there be for something that costs that much?

Analyst Jay Gullish of the consulting firm Futron can envision perhaps a thousand passengers at that price.

JAY GULLISH: And you do have a lot space enthusiasts that you could see, you know, a couple family members, you know, paying for, you know, dad or mom to go.

KAUFMAN: And, of course, there would be those seeking a novel destination. But after that, he says...

GULLISH: That's really dependent on the price.

KAUFMAN: Virgin Galactic has some potential competition. A couple of other companies have plans to offer flights in the $100,000 range.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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