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SPACE AIRLINE TO LAUNCH BRANSON, RUTAN, ALLEN TO MAKE A CRAFT FOR PAYING CUSTOMERS.

Byline: Jim Skeen Staff Writer

MOJAVE - Billionaires Richard Branson and Paul Allen and aircraft designer Burt Rutan are teaming up to create a spacecraft that could begin carrying paying passengers before the end of the decade.

Using technology developed for the Allen-financed SpaceShipOne - which went into space June 21 and is due to do it again Wednesday - Rutan is working on a design for a spaceship for a new Branson company called Virgin Galactic.

``We hope to create thousands of astronauts over the next few years and bring alive their dream of seeing the majestic beauty of our planet from above, the stars in all their glory and the amazing sensation of weightlessness,'' said Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic airlines.

Spaceflight tickets are expected to start at around $190,000 - for about four minutes of weightlessness. Branson expects 3,000 people will pay to go into space in the first five years of spaceflights.

How many passengers the new ship could carry on each trip was not disclosed, but Branson envisions the spaceflights will be similar to those of Rutan's SpaceShipOne rocket plane.

The Virgin spaceship will be carried aloft by a mother ship and then released to rocket into space at roughly 2,100 mph. Passengers will be able to look down at the Earth and experience weightlessness before the spacecraft glides back to the spaceport.

Passengers would get at least three days of pre-flight training.

Branson also announced the signing of a letter of intent with Rutan and Rutan's Mojave-based Scaled Composites company to develop a longer-flying spacecraft capable of two-hour journeys in space.

``Apart from building SpaceShipOne for Paul and then watching it fly to space on June 21, this is one of the most exciting days of my life,'' Rutan said in a statement about the agreement. ``Our June spaceflight was flown with several new technologies that address both the cost and safety of manned spaceflight. These, combined with the lessons learned from our SpaceShipOne research program, will enable us to develop the finest suborbital operational systems possible.''

In the announcement issued Monday, Branson said a technology licensing agreement with Allen's Mojave Aerospace Ventures allows use of the technology developed for SpaceShipOne.

``I backed the development of SpaceShipOne because I saw this as a great opportunity to demonstrate that space exploration could someday be within the reach of private citizens,'' said Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft and owner of the Seattle Seahawks football team and Portland Trail Blazers basketball team.

The agreement is potentially worth $21.5 million over the next 15 years, depending on the number of spaceships built by Virgin, the announcement said. Developing the spaceships and ground-support facilities could cost $100 million.

The first Virgin spaceship, called VSS Enterprise, could begin construction next year. Suborbital spaceflights could start in 2 1/2 to three years.

SpaceShipOne made history on June 21 when it took off from Mojave Airport and flew to 62 miles above Earth, becoming the first privately funded, privately developed manned spaceship.

SpaceShipOne is scheduled to vie for the $10 million Ansari X Prize with a pair of suborbital flights over the next two weeks. The first of two flights to capture the prize is scheduled for Wednesday with the second occurring perhaps as early as Oct. 4.

Rutan has indicated that he would like to fly passengers on the three- seat SpaceShipOne and has a list of ``significant folks'' who would like to fly on the spacecraft. Rutan said, however, he has no desire to run a space airline himself.

Rutan did offer up thoughts on what it would take to run such an operation during a press conference for the June 21 SpaceShipOne flight.

A passenger spacecraft would have to be fairly spacious and would have to have five or six seats to be cost-effective, Rutan said.

``For suborbital tourism, you've got to give everyone a large window and a seat close to it, and you have to give them a lot of room,'' Rutan said. ``You've got to go to 150 kilometers (about 93 miles) and give them time to unstrap and float around.''

Jim Skeen, (661) 267-5743

james.skeen(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 4 -- color) British billionaire Richard Branson, above, announces Monday that he's formed Virgin Galactic. At right, Branson, left, listens to pioneering aviation designer Burt Rutan in January. Below, a crew works on assembling the craft to compete for the Ansari X Prize, and at far right, TV crews get ready to cover Wednesday's spaceflight.

Associated Press

Jeff Goldwater/Staff Photographer

Gene Blevins/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 28, 2004
Words:768
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