Richard Branson today set out the roadmap for Virgin Galactic's immediate future by announcing that he will be taking his children along for the ride when the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) makes its inaugural flight next year (should all go to plan). As expected, Branson also confirmed plans for a commercial service to put satellites in orbit at a tenth of today's costs, marking the resumption of Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne program.
At Farnborough Airshow, Virgin Galactic announced that 529 would-be astronauts have signed up to take the US$200,000, 60-mile (96-km) high trip. WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) will carry SS2 to an altitude of 50,000 feet before releasing it to journey out of the blue, where its six passengers and two pilots will experience weightlessness. SS2 will then glide back to its spaceport in New Mexico.
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The 529 milestone is significant, being one more passenger than 528 people that have traveled into space to date, arguably lending some credibility to Branson's aim for Virgin Galactic to "revolutionize the way we get to space." The aim is to put all 529 into space within a few years of the first trip.
Hints that Virgin Galactic would again look to the subject of commercial satellite launches had led to speculation in recent weeks that the company would resume its LauncherOne program, and Virgin Galactic's statement today indeed confirmed that work on LauncherOne will continue.
Like SS2, LauncherOne would be carried to sub-orbital altitudes by WhiteKnightTwo, effectively replacing the SpaceShipTwo module to put small satellites up to 500 pounds (225 kg) in weight into orbit for a $10 million fee. LauncherOne would be a two-stage rocket powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen engines
Virgin Galactic announced that four companies had paid deposits for the service, including Planetary Resources, the asteroid-mining venture backed by Avatar director James Cameron.
A video of Richard Branson waxing lyrical about Virgin Galactic's plans can be seen below.
Source: Virgin Galactic