18 Months and Counting Until Branson Blasts Off

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“We just finished building SpaceShipTwo. We are 18 months away from taking people into space,” Richard Branson, founder of the space tourism company Virgin Galactic, told delegates in Kuala Lumpur on Monday.

At the Malaysian business conference, Branson also discussed his company’s intention to launch small satellites for schools and universities. He’s also looking into space hotels and the possibility of sending tourists to the moon.

WATCH VIDEO: The Sexiest Spaceship Ever: Richard Branson talks to Discovery News’ Irene Klotz about his latest innovation.

Built by Galactic’s partner Scaled Composites, SpaceShipTwo will loft six fee-paying passengers a little under 70 miles into the Earth’s thermosphere. The suborbital joyride will take them into space, giving a few minutes of weightlessness when the spaceship reaches apogee (the highest point in the parabolic trip).

The catch? That’ll be $200,000 please.

But don’t let the lofty return ticket cost give you the impression the 2.5 hour trip is unpopular.

The burgeoning space tourism company has collected $45 million in deposits from more than 330 people who have already reserved seats. Not bad considering the first flight isn’t planned until some time in the spring of 2012.

WIDE ANGLE: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

SpaceShipTwo is part of a two-stage system, the first being its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. The aircraft will carry the spaceship up to 60,000 ft (twice as high as commercial airliners) before SpaceShipTwo drops and then fires up its rocket engine, blasting it beyond the edge of our atmosphere.

However, there have been some hiccups on the way to space tourism dominance.

Last month, the carrier aircraft suffered damage during a test flight when its left-side landing gear collapsed on the runway. SpaceShipTwo was not attached at the time.

Fortunately, three weeks later, Scaled Composites repaired the damage and made some modifications to the landing gear and WhiteKnightTwo was back in the air.

Source: AFP

Image: Richard Branson at Mojave Air and Space Port in California on December 7, 2009

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