Virgin Galactic eyes NASA commercial space work

* Virgin Galactic plans orbital travel in next few years

* Suborbital space flights due by 2013

By Irene Klotz

UPHAM, N.M., Oct 22 (BestGrowthStock) – Virgin Galactic, an
offshoot of billionaire Richard Branson’s London-based Virgin
Group (VA.L: ), plans to compete in the upcoming race to develop
orbital space vehicles, Branson said on Friday.

NASA plans to issue a solicitation as early as Monday for a
follow-up to its $50 million Commercial Crew Development
program, (for developing commercial crew spaceflight concepts),
as part of a broader revamping of the U.S. space program under
President Barack Obama.

The program is funding work by five companies — Sierra
Nevada Corp, Boeing Co (BA.N: ), United Launch Alliance, Blue
Origin and Paragon Space Development — as part of Obama’s bid
to bolster support for private space companies.

“There’s about four companies that are seriously looking at
it (the NASA commercial crew program),” Branson told Reuters.

He said Virgin Galactic was currently in discussions with
two of the companies about teaming up with them and would
decide over the next month whether to do so or go it alone.

One way or the other, Branson said, “We plan to be in
orbital travel within the next few years.”

Virgin Galactic expects to begin suborbital space flights
in late 2011 or 2012. Its first spaceship, named VSS
Enterprise, is undergoing testing by designer and manufacturer
Scaled Composites of Mojave, California.

The spaceship and its carrier aircraft, the White Knight
Two, were in New Mexico on Friday for dedication of the runway
at a commercial spaceport located north of Las Cruces that will
become Virgin Galactic’s home base.

The event drew about 600 people to the southern New Mexico
desert, including about 30 of the more than 380 customers who
already have paid or put down deposits for the $200,000
suborbital space rides.

The U.S. human space program has been thrown into turmoil
by President Obama’s decision, on advice from an outside
advisory panel, to end NASA’s follow-on moon program called
Constellation, and embark on a more flexible approach to deep
space exploration.

That plan, unveiled in February, will make the government a
customer, rather than provider, for crew transportation
services to the International Space Station following next
year’s grounding of the aging U.S. space shuttle fleet.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Tom Brown and Carol
Bishopric)

Virgin Galactic eyes NASA commercial space work