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Tuesday, Nov 20 2012 05:00 AM

Sir Richard Branson visits Mojave Spaceport

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Richard Branson and the hard-working rock stars of rocket science who built SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. Photo by Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic

Billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist and founder of the Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, dropped into his Mojave spaceship factory last Monday as part of a visit to the Los Angeles area.

Aptly named The Spaceship Company (TSC), Branson, accompanied by his daughter Holly, toured the extensive facilities and met informally with the Mojave-based workforce of 175 employees who are hard at work building the components for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.

Branson announced to staff that his Spaceship Company, which will manufacture and assemble a fleet of commercial space vehicles, is to be renamed and brought under the Virgin Galactic brand.

Also included in his visit to the Mojave Air and Space Port was a meeting with Mojave-based Scaled Composites, which help develop Virgin Galactic's commercial vehicles, WhiteKnightTwo and the new SpaceShipTwo, both of which are in the latter stages of their test flight program.

Branson continued his tour meeting with Virgin Galactic engineering and design staff and enjoyed a preview of the yet-to-be-revealed spaceship interior, which is designed to carry six passengers as well as two crew members, or the equivalent scientific research payload.

Next he visited the vehicle test sites where he joined the whole team at the Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar for a tour and updates on operations, assembly and propulsion, before capping off the daylong event with a celebration and one-on-one time with employees.

Branson congratulated both hi-tech teams from Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites on their achievements in producing and testing the two craft, bringing his vision of affordable manned access to space to reality.

But don't get ready to fasten your seatbelt for a ride into suborbital space just yet.

While it is hoped that the first Virgin Galactic space tourism flights based at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico will proceed in 2013, it is also expected to come at an out-of-this-world price of $200,000 a ride.

Making the out-of-the-seat, zero-gravity experience a little pricey for tourist astronauts seeking an astounding view of the planet from the black sky of space, but more suited to provide a unique microgravity platform for researchers with deep pockets and some of Hollywood's elite.

Still, while the age of commercial travel beyond Earth may still be a ways off for the average frequent flyer, Branson's VSS Enterprise and VMS Eve test flight program is well under way.

And with a few more tests flight and the approval of authorities like the Federal Aviation Adminstration, the dream of space travel may be closer than we realize.

Scaled Composites

Mojave-based Scaled Composites, founded by now-retired Burt Rutan, developed SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize as the world's first privately developed manned spacecraft.

Earlier this year Virgin Galactic took 100-percent ownership of its sister company The Spaceship Company, by acquiring the 30 percent stake held by Scaled Composites.

To date, TSC has completed the build of manufacturing and assembly facilities in Mojave, established a specialized workforce and transitioned necessary assets from Scaled. Photo 1 - Sir Richard Branson and the Scaled Composites team pose in front of SpaceShipTwo, after Richard got to see for himself the great progress being made installing rocket motor and tanks in preparation for powered flight.

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