Virgin Galactic is one of the world's first space tourism companies, founded by Sir Richard Branson as a part of the worldwide Virgin Group. It plans to construct the world's first commercial spaceport, Spaceport America, (formerly Southwest Regional Spaceport) in Upham, New Mexico, an uninhabited, unincorporated town near the town of Las Cruces.
The founding and continued development of Virgin Galactic is a waking dream for space enthusiasts, who knew this day would come. The flight vehicle will be based off the successful SpaceShipOne design, which won the Ansari X-Prize for space tourism in 2004. SpaceShipTwo, or Virgin SpaceShip (VSS) as it will be called, is scheduled to start giving commercial flights in early 2009, for the cost of $190,000 US Dollars (USD) per flight.
The flights that Virgin Galactic will initially offer will be true spaceflights, in the sense that they will be at an altitude of about 108 km (67 miles), just above the Kármán line that separates the Earth from space. However, these are just suborbital flights - that is, they scrape the edge of space without actually getting into a stable orbit and staying there. For the early flights, the craft will be traveling at about Mach 3, not enough to reach orbit, and will spend about 6 minutes in space proper, where the passengers will be weightless. While in space, they will be permitted to unbuckle their safety belts and float around the cabin, which will be outfitted with numerous windows to observe the surface.
In honor of Star Trek, the first two Virgin SpaceShips will be named Enterprise and Voyager, respectively. The contract Virgin Galactic has with the makers of the first privately-built spaceship, SpaceShipOne, arranges for the construction of 5 spaceships total.
SpaceShipOne was built by Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, funded by the Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. The two formed a company, Mojave Aerospace Ventures, to deal with commercial spinoffs from the project. This is the company working together with Virgin Galactic to bring commercial spaceflight to the public for the first time ever. For $21 million USD, the company leased the intellectual property rights from Mojave Aerospace.
People have already begun registering for spots on the first space flights. Celebrity sign-ups include William Shatner and Sigourney Weaver, who both starred in science fiction epics taking place in outer space. Stephen Hawking, sometimes called the world's greatest physicist since Albert Einstein, is also signed up to take a Virgin Galactic flight. His fee will be waived.