Private Spaceship Could Start Carrying Tourists Within a Year

Private Spaceship Could Start Carrying Tourists Within a Year
Sir Richard Branson show's off his favorite space plane - SpaceShipTwo. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

NEW YORK ? Virgin Galactic's new commercial spaceship couldbe flying its first passengers ? company founder Sir Richard Branson and hisfamily ? in about a year, Branson said today (Nov. 30) on NBC's "Today"show.

"We're about 12 months away," Branson said. Thecraft, called SpaceShipTwo,will provide tourists with a brief taste of weightlessness and a window on theglobe of the Earth from the blackness of space, without making a full orbitaround the planet. The ship flies six passengers and two pilots.

"It's really exciting," he said. "Thespaceship is now finished, the mothership is finished, the spaceport in NewMexico is very nearly finished." [Gallery:First Solo Flight of SpaceShipTwo]

SpaceShipTwo will be lofted to midair by a carriermothership called WhiteKnightTwo, then will rocket itself up to space. Theinitial launches will fly out of SpaceportAmerica, near Truth or Consequences, N.M.

Branson, a British billionaire, was here in New York City topromote a separate venture, the launch of an iPadlifestyle magazine called Project, also under the banner of Branson'sVirgin Group. The publication will be a combination print magazine and website,featuring constantly updated content and sold via the Apple app store for $2.99a month.

Flights on SpaceShipTwo won't be nearly as affordable.Branson said 500 passengers are already signed up, at $200,000 a ride.

"Over the years, as more and more people go, I thinkwe'll start bringing the price of it down," Branson said.

Apparently not content to stick to suborbital trips, Bransonhas hinted that Virgin Galactic might soon begin to pursue orbitalspace travel. The company would join several other firms vying to producethe first commercial spacecraft capable of carrying people to low-Earth orbitand the International Space Station.

That market has become even more enticing in the wake ofPresident Obama's decision to steer NASA toward using private spaceships forthis purpose once they become available.

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Clara Moskowitz
Assistant Managing Editor

Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.