Virgin Galactic has announced that it expects to test-fly its first spaceship beyond the Earth's atmosphere sometime later in the year. Officials at the firm, which is a division of billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson's Virgin Group, said that it expects to be making commercial suborbital flights by 2013.
The effort to send “regular” citizens into outer space has been an ambition of Mr Branson's for some time and according to officials at the Group, Virgin is moving closer to reaching the historic landmark. Already, in fact, nearly 500 customers have signed up for rides on SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot spaceship.
Despite the inhibitive pricetag of $200,000 per person, it seems that there is a big market for commercial flights into space. The Virgin Group, which has interests in a number of other areas, including air travel, music, telecommunications and rail travel, explained that the flights will give people the a few minutes to experience zero gravity. Additionally, they will be afforded the opportunity to stare at the Earth set against the blackness of space.
"In the suborbital area, there are a lot of things to be done. This is an area that has been essentially absent for about four decades," explained Neil Armstrong, commander of the first mission to land on the moon.
Addressing a crowd of around 400 people attending the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Palo Alto, California, Armstrong explained: "I certainly hope that some of the new approaches will prove to be profitable and useful."
Virgin Atlantic is, however, just one of a number of firms seeking to become the first to send regular citizens into outer space. But while the fight to become the firm recognised as having broken the barrier is intense, most industry experts believe Virgin to be on course to win.
Already, the firm's spaceship has completed 31 atmospheric test flights and Virgin Galactic chief test pilot David Mackay said that Virgin is moving closer and closer to reaching the landmark. "We hope to have the rocket motor in the spaceship later this year and start powered flight testing," he said. "We would like to be the first to do this, but we're not in a race with anyone. This is not a Cold War-era space race," he added.