Virgin Galactic Gets Green Light for Space Flights

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British billionaire and entrepreneur Richard Branson’s dreams of shuttling customers into space just became closer to reality than they have ever been.

Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, announced that it and the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) signed an agreement on Thursday, May 29, clearing the path for commercial spaceship flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The BBC describes:

The agreement with US authorities outlines how the FAA’s air traffic control centre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the state’s Spaceport Authority, will work with Virgin Galactic to make sure there is safe airspace for Virgin Galactic’s space plane, the SpaceShipTwo.

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Artist’s rendering of Spaceport America. (Credit: Spaceport America)

Following the announcement of this agreement, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides commented, “Our team is working hard to begin routine and affordable space launches from Spaceport America and this agreement brings us another step closer to that goal.”

Virgin Galactic’s announcement came just hours before Branson’s fellow private space entrepreneur Elon Musk unveiled SpaceX’s new Dragon spacecraft. Discovery News describes that this Dragon V2 craft is designed to hold a crew of seven and is outfitted with thruster rockets and landing legs for “powered, pinpoint touchdowns on land.” Musk describes, “You’ll be able to land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter.” SpaceX already delivers supplies to the International Space Station. But with the Dragon V2, the company will be able to shuttle astronauts as well.

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The SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft. (Credit: SpaceX)

Both Elon Musk and Richard Branson are pioneers in the private space arena. And they both have their sights set on more than just space transportation. They both want to colonize Mars. In a 2012 interview on the program CBS This Morning, Branson stated, “I think over the next 20 years, we will take literally hundreds of thousands of people to space and that will give us the financial resources to do even bigger things.” He went on to explain that one of the “bigger things” he wants to accomplish is starting a population on Mars. He optimistically hopes to achieve this within his lifetime, and feels that “it is absolutely realistic. It will happen.”

Aside from his space endeavors, Branson wants to develop extremely fast planes that can take passengers from New York to Tokyo in less than an hour.

Virgin Galactic has experienced delay after delay in its push to offer commercial space flights. The company had hoped to begin flights back in 2012, but various issues kept pushing things back. With the FAA agreement reached, the company hopes to launch its first flight by the end of 2014. More than 600 people have already signed up for a $250,000 space flight aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. At that price tag, naturally, most of the passengers are celebrities, including Rihanna, Ashton Kutcher, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie.

Images: Virgin Galactic

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