Space just got one step closer.
Sir Richard Branson’s private space tourism operator Virgin Galactic has appointed its first chief executive as it gears up for commercial operations.
George Whitesides was chief of staff at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the U.S..
Will Whitehorn, the current president of Virgin Galactic who was formerly a spin doctor for Virgin founder Branson, will report to Whitesides.
Virgin Galactic, which has to date accepted more than $65million worth of reservations from 335 future space-travellers, holds deposits of more than $45million. Each aspiring amateur astronaut will be charged £133,000 to experience a few minutes of suborbital spaceflight.
SpaceShipTwo will be carried to an altitude of about 50,000ft and then released by the mothership. Powered by a single rocket motor, the spaceship will be flown by a crew of two and carry six passengers on a Mach 3 thrill ride through the edge of the atmosphere for a brief zero-gravity experience and views of the Earth far below before gliding to a landing.
The world’s first commercial passenger spaceship, it made its inaugural test flight over the California desert in March.
The flight marked the start of a test programme that will progress to flights as a glider and then under rocket power.
Throughout the two hour 54 minute test, the rocket remained slung beneath the middle of the wing of its ‘mothership’ WhiteKnightTwo, a twin-fuselage carrier aircraft.
The pair achieved an altitude of 45,000ft before returning to the Mojave Air and Space Port, which is 70 miles north of Los Angeles.
Test flights are scheduled to continue through 2011, with commercial operations set to begin in 2012.
The rocket and mothership are the second generation of the Burt Rutan-designed system that sent the first privately developed, manned rocket into space in 2004.
SpaceShipOne went on that year to make two more suborbital flights, winning the £6.7million prize Ansari X Prize. It is now in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
Sir Richard is in a deal with the Rutan-founded Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, to develop passenger-carrying spacecraft and launchers.
SpaceShipTwo has been dubbed Virgin Spaceship Enterprise and the four-engine carrier jet is called Virgin Mothership Eve, after Sir Richard’s mother.
‘Seeing the finished spaceship in December was a major day for us but watching VSS Enterprise fly for the first time really brings home what beautiful, groundbreaking vehicles Burt and his team have developed for us,’ said Sir Richard.