Virgin Galactic, NASA Team Up to Develop Space-Plane Travel

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According to Tai, Virgin Galactic sees that benefit. The collaboration with NASA will allow the venture to tap the agency's engineering prowess to assess the feasibility of a hypersonic passenger service.

"We can't do it ourselves, so we've gone to the experts in the world, which are NASA," Tai said.

"We are interested in possibly paying for it. NASA is interested in researching it," he added.

Under the terms of the memorandum, neither party is committed to funding the collaboration, but both are exploring their options.

If certain technologies, including hypersonic craft, are feasible, they'll go forward together, officials from both groups said.

(See National Geographic magazine's "The Future of Flight".)

First Rung

According to Tai, Virgin Galactic's space tourism venture may only be the first step toward hypersonic point-to-point travel, but it is an important one.

Virgin Galactic has exclusive rights to the spacecraft technologies built by aerospace designer Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites in Mojave, California.

In 2004 Scaled Composite's SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Prize for reaching an altitude greater than 328,000 feet (100 kilometers) twice within two weeks. The altitude is considered the threshold between Earth's atmosphere and space.

Virgin Galactic plans to take customers into space aboard SpaceShipTwo beginning in 2009. The round-trip flights will take off from Mojave. Tickets cost U.S. $200,000.

The two-and-a-half-hour trip, according to Tai, will accustom civilians to space travel much in the same way pilots returning from World War I accustomed civilians to air travel.

World War I pilots went from town to town taking people up for joy rides in their planes as a way to kick-start the airline industry, he said.

Virgin Galactic's spaceflights will also give passengers "an appreciation for the fragility of the Earth and a fantastic view," Tai noted.

"But the long-term goal—going from A to B—is probably where the larger market is," he added.

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