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Virgin Galactic coming to SA

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Virgin Galactic, ‚the world’s first commercial spaceline‚ , will launch in South Africa next month. SEAN BACHER reports.

May 2 will see the arrival in South Africa of Sir Richard Branson’s most ambitious business venture yet: Virgin Galactic, described by the company as ‚the world’s first commercial spaceline‚ .

Virgin Galactic will announce the appointment of their first and only ‚Accredited Space Agent‚ in South Africa at a press conference, which will be presided over by senior executives of the company.

Stephen Attenborough, Commercial Director of Virgin Galactic, UK, and Carolyn Wincer, Head of Travel and Tourism Development of Virgin Galactic, USA, will visit South Africa and introduce the media to their local agent.

They will also present South African media with an overview of the Virgin Galactic project and bring it up to date with its latest developments.

Virgin Galactic are likely to share offices with Virgin Atlantic in Hyde Park, Johannesburg.

The company has already selected its first pilots. After a selection process comprising more than 500 applicants, USAF test pilot Keith Colmer last October became the first astronaut pilot to join the flight team, led by Chief Pilot David Mackay, and has started flight training and testing. They have participated in two operational missions to space with Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo ships.

An elite team of test pilots from prime contractor Scaled Composite is putting the two craft through an exhaustive series of test flights from a base in the Mojave desert in California.

‚This team in Mojave is second to none,‚ said Mackay about Scaled Composite’s test pilots. ‚Keith and I are indeed fortunate to have their expertise and body of work to build on as we enter the final phases of the test program and prepare to open space to all.‚

Virgin Galactic’s home base, Spaceport America, has been constructed in southern New Mexico, with the futuristic terminal building designed by Sir Norman Foster.

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Branson and his children, Sam and Holly,will be the first commercial passengers on SpaceShipTwo. They jointly named the terminal the ‚Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space‚ during the opening ceremony last year, while rappelling together from the roof of the new building.

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, a combined terminal and hangar facility, will support up to two WhiteKnightTwo and five SpaceShipTwo vehicles. In addition, The Gateway will house all of the company’s astronaut preparation and celebration facilities, a mission control center, and a friends and family area. There is also space committed to public access via the planned New Mexico Spaceport Authority’s Visitor Experience.

Virgin Galactic CEO and President George Whitesides said the company continued to make excellent with dozens of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo flights under the belt.

In addition, the company is expanding its mission beyond commercial space tourism. The company has been awarded a contract under NASA’s Flight Opportunity Program for research flights to a potential value of $4.5m.

So far more than 500 people have signed up as travellers on the spaceline’s commercial flights. The 500th, actor Ashton Kutcher, made his booking in March. He was just beaten to the front of the line by number 499, Shervin Pishevar, a venture capital investor in social media and gaming companies, among other.

The starting price for flights is $200,000. Takeoff dates are not yet available.

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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