for National Geographic News
Virgin Galactic, the space tourism venture of billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, is the first step toward hypersonic travel between Earth-based cities, according to a company executive.
Virgin Galactic's space flights will accustom passengers to flying at the extreme altitudes likely necessary for hypersonic travel, said Alex Tai, the venture's chief operating officer.
"The experiential rides that we're providing with Virgin Galactic are the first rung, or the stepping stone, for us to use space for other activities," Tai said.
"And the first one of those we'd like to look at is point-to-point travel on the planet," he continued.
The venture will explore the possibility of hypersonic travel as part of a memorandum of understanding it signed last month with the U.S. space agency NASA.
"If Virgin's going to go off and build a high-speed transoceanic passenger service craft of some sort, NASA's of course very interested," said Dan Coughlin, NASA's lead for the Virgin Galactic agreement at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
In 2004 NASA twice flew a demonstration vehicle successfully at hypersonic speeds.
(Related: "U.S. Developing Jets That Fly Five Times the Speed of Sound" [March 14, 2007].)
Since the demonstration flights, NASA researchers have continued to hone their engineering tools, but budget cuts and other priorities have put plans to build a hypersonic space plane on the back burner.
Nevertheless, "NASA has unique capability and unique engineering skills and facilities that we've developed over 40 or 50 years that could benefit Virgin," Coughlin said.
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