PALO ALTO, CALIF. - Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, expects to test-fly its first spaceship beyond the Earth's atmosphere this year, with commercial suborbital passenger service to follow in 2013 or 2014, company officials said on Monday.
Nearly 500 customers have signed up for rides on SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot spaceship being built and tested by Scaled Composites, an aerospace company founded by aircraft designer Burt Rutan and now owned by Northrop Grumman.
The suborbital flights, which cost $200,000 per person, are designed to reach an altitude of about 68 miles (109 km), giving fliers a few minutes to experience zero gravity and glimpse Earth set against the blackness of space.
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