Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, is planning to test-fly its first spaceship beyond the Earth's atmosphere this year, with commercial suborbital passenger service to follow in 2013 or 2014, company officials have announced.
Nearly 500 customers have signed up for rides on SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot spaceship being built and tested by Scaled Composites, an aerospace company founded by aircraft designer Burt Rutan and now owned by Northrop Grumman.
The suborbital flights, which cost 200,000 dollars per person, are designed to reach an altitude of about 68 miles, giving fliers a few minutes to experience zero gravity and glimpse 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," the Telegraph quoted Neil Armstrong, test pilot for the 1960s-era X-15 research plane before becoming commander of the first US mission to land on the moon, as saying.