A Space Race for Paying Customers Four years ago, SpaceShipOne made history as the first private manned spacecraft. SpaceShipTwo, which begins flight tests this year, will eventually offer paying customers the chance to become astronauts.

A Space Race for Paying Customers

A Space Race for Paying Customers

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An illustration of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo in space. Virgin Galactic hide caption

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Virgin Galactic

An illustration of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo in space.

Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson is well known as the charismatic founder of Virgin Airlines. He also has another company, Virgin Galactic, that's planning to send paying customers into space. The company's first spaceship is almost ready, Branson said Wednesday at a press conference in New York City, and the music was pumping as he unveiled a scale model of Virgin Galactic's spacecraft.

The new ship is based on the same technology as an earlier craft called SpaceShipOne. That vehicle won a big prize in 2004 for being the first private craft to carry humans into space. It was a tiny, cramped capsule with just three seats.

The new spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, is much bigger. It will carry six passengers. It looks like a silver corporate airplane, and it goes into the sky strapped to a mothership with a wingspan of 140 feet. To get into space, SpaceShipTwo detaches from the mothership and rockets up. The passengers will be able float in weightlessness for a few minutes until the ship glides home.

Virgin Galactic expects test flights to begin this summer, Branson says, and the company has already deemed 2008 "the year of the spaceship."

"We're tremendously excited about the prospects for this system," Branson says. "We're excited about everything it will be able to do."

After unveiling the models, the company showed a humorous video of Branson and other future space travelers spinning around in a centrifuge.

They grimaced and laughed and even played air guitar as they experienced the same G-forces clients would feel during their flight. Virgin Galactic's Stephen Attenborough says they've tried this for about 80 customers so far, and only a handful have been turned away for medical reasons.

They're confident, Attenborough says, "that ordinary people actually can go to space. And in fact almost all of us have the right stuff."

Of course, there's some stuff that not all of us have: $200,000. That's the price of a ticket. Still, Virgin Galactic says it already has more than 200 people who have made deposits.

Many of them were wandering around the press event in snazzy black uniforms. B.J. Bjorklund is a financial advisor from Dallas, Texas. Years ago, he wanted to be an astronaut. Then, while visiting a recent air show, he learned that Virgin Galactic was offering commercial flights.

"I actually signed up for it before I even told my wife," Bjorklund says. "I called her that night on the phone and said, 'You're not going to believe what I did.'"

He expects to be one of the first 100 people to go up, although he doesn't have anything like an e-ticket. "I'd like to see what the ticket looks like," he laughs.

Luxury travel agents expect that the unveiling of the new design and the test flights will sell more tickets. Anne Morgan Scully is president of McCabe World Travel in McLean, Va. She's one of Virgin Galactic's accredited space agents. In her office, there are posters of Italy and California, but also a model of a spaceship.

"I don't think a regular seat on a plane is ultimate travel anymore," Scully says. "This is something extraordinary that is about to be launched. It's the ultimate dream, it's the ultimate vacation."

For now, even paying customers can only dream about this ultimate vacation. Virgin Galactic can't say how long it will take SpaceShipTwo to get through flight and safety tests.