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.
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A Space Race for Paying Customers

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A Space Race for Paying Customers

A Space Race for Paying Customers

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The sky is no longer the limit for Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Airlines. Branson has another company he calls Virgin Galactic. It's planning to send paying customers into space. And the company's first spaceship is said to be almost ready.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on the technology and the man who wants to launch it.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: When Sir Richard Branson makes an announcement, you know it's not exactly going to be low key. So the music was pumping when he unveiled a scale model of Virgin Galactic's spacecraft at a big press event in New York City.

Sir RICHARD BRANSON (CEO, Virgin Group): Five, four, three, two, one.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The new ship is based on the same technology as something called SpaceShipOne. That vehicle got 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 mother ship with a wingspan of 140 feet. To get into space, SpaceShipTwo detaches from the mother ship and rockets up. The passengers will be able to float in weightlessness for a few minutes until the ship glides home. Virgin Galactic says test flights should begin this summer. Richard Branson says it's a big step.

Sir BRANSON: 2008 really will be the Year of the Spaceship. We're tremendously excited about the prospects for this system. We're excited about everything that it will be able to do.

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

(Soundbite of music)

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

Mr. STEPHEN ATTENBOROUGH (Vice President for Astronaut Relations, Virgin Galactic): So overall, we proved conclusively during that period that ordinary people actually can go to space. And, in fact, almost all of us have the right stuff.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: 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 over 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 adviser from Dallas, Texas. Years ago, he wanted to be an astronaut. Then, while visiting an air show recently, he learned that Virgin Galactic was offering commercial flights.

Mr. B.J. BJORKLUND (Portfolio Manager, Citigroup's Smith Barney): I actually signed up for it before I even told my wife. And I called her that night on the phone and said, you're not going to believe what I did.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He expects to be one of the first 100 people to go up, although he doesn't have an eTicket.

Mr. BJORKLUND: I'd like to see what the ticket looks like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: 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, Virginia. 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.

Ms. ANNE MORGAN SCULLY (President, McCabe World Travel): I don't think a regular seat on a plane is ultimate travel anymore. This is something extraordinary that's about to be launched. It's the ultimate dream. It's the ultimate vacation.

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

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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