Virgin Galactic is a spaceline in Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, which plans to offer suborbital spaceflights and later orbital spaceflights to the paying public.
Virgin Galactic plans to fly 500 passengers a year at about US$200,000 to an altitude of over 100 km with a total weightless time of 7 minutes.
Only about 500 people have been off the planet and gained their astronaut wings since spaceflight began in the 1960s, and even fewer have orbited the Earth. Current commercial flights to space, provided by the Russian Space Agency, cost roughly US$20 million for a six-day orbital flight.
After talks throughout 2004, on September 24, 2004 Virgin Galactic signed a deal worth up to US $21 million with Mojave Aerospace Ventures to license the intellectual property behind the Tier One project for purposes of space tourism. The deal was announced by Branson and Burt Rutan on September 27, 2004 at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. The initial plan is for Rutan to design and build five suborbital tourist craft based on a scaled-up version of SpaceShipOne. Construction is to begin in 2005, with six months of intensive testing in 2007.
It is planned that the spacecraft are to be robust and affordable enough to take paying passengers. Initially planned to be a piloted craft accommodating five passengers, it is now projected to be a nine-passenger craft. It will make suborbital flights lasting three hours overall, with about seven minutes of weightlessness. It will fly a little higher than SpaceShipOne in order to make the experience longer and even more impressive. SpaceShipTwo is the name of the prototype of the Virgin craft. Virgin Galactic has contracted with The Spaceship Company (owned by Virgin Group and Scaled) to build five SpaceShipTwos and two WhiteKnightTwos.
The spacecraft are to be named using the prefix VSS ("Virgin SpaceShip"). The first craft is to be VSS Enterprise, in an acknowledged nod to Star Trek's USS Enterprise; the second, possibly named after the Star Trek craft or the spaceprobe, is expected to be named VSS Voyager.
Branson has suggested an initial ticket price of US$ 200,000 for a suborbital tourist flight, including a week of flight training. Following an email survey sent to a Virgin Galactic mailing-list, including the question, "Would you consider putting down a deposit for a ride when we are ready for you to do so?", the company has stated that at this price they estimate a market of 7,000 potential passengers (a claim disputed by some), to fly over a five-year period starting 2007-2008. Furthermore, they believe that over a five-year period only 5,000 passengers would be needed in order to be profitable. Profits from early flights would be reinvested to make space tourism more affordable. Among those reported to have told Branson that they wished to be among the first to fly on the spacecraft are Star Trek star William Shatner, Jane's Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Dave Navarro, Alien star Sigourney Weaver, an unnamed Hollywood director, and socialite Paris Hilton. Richard Branson himself, as well as a select few of his close family members will blast off on the first flight of the VSS Enterprise in 2008. In March 2005, Doug Ramsberg, a native of Northglenn, Colorado, won a free trip to suborbital space aboard Virgin Galactic, from a Volvo sweepstake sponsored by Virgin.
On April 20, 2005, Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn told a US congressional hearing that 100 people had put down $20,000 deposits for their space flights. At the 2005 Oshkosh Airshow, it was stated that Virgin Galactic had received over 4000 job applications for the approximately 75 pilot positions it needs for operating the SpaceShipTwo fleet.
On December 13, 2005, Branson announced that Virgin Galactic would undertake a joint venture with the New Mexico state government to construct Southwest Regional Spaceport, a $225 million facility to be located near Upham, New Mexico. The venture was approved by the state legislature and the funding plans signed into law by New Mexico state governor Bill Richardson on March 1, 2006.
Branson has also said that Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center could serve as an East Coast spaceport.
Branson also has plans for orbital space tourism and even proposes putting a hotel in space. At the end of a video available on their web site, they put up the question "What's Next?", and show computer-generated shots of a Virgin Galactic craft docked at an orbital space station.