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Agreement With FAA Clears Operational Path for Commercial Spaceplane

By Erik Derr staff@sciencetimes.com | Jul 08, 2014 11:04 PM EDT

Virgin Galactic, the privately-funded space transportation outfit led by Sir Richard Branson, and New Mexico's Spaceport America announced a clearer course to eventual trips to space.

A joint agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has set out the guidelines for commercial trips into space by SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger suborbital space plane developed by the transport company, which is co-owned by Branson's Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments PJS.

Virgin Galactic has announced plans to operate a fleet of five SpaceShipTwo plane in a private passenger-carrying service, although flights could also haul scientific payloads for the national Aeronautics and Space Administration or other organizations.

The company has been booking flight reservations for an extended period of time, with individual seats now offered at $250,000 per flight.

The just-signed agreement details how space missions launched from Spaceport America will be integrated into the National Airspace System -- particularly how the FAA's Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority will work with Virgin Galactic to smoothly and safely provide clear airspace for SpaceShipTwo.

"Our team is working hard to begin routine and affordable space launches from Spaceport America and this agreement brings us another step closer to that goal," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a news release. "We are grateful to the FAA and New Mexico for their partnership to achieve this milestone."

In 2013, Virgin Galactic began paying rent on a 20-year lease to conduct space missions from the 110,000 square foot "Gateway to Space" building at the spaceport.

Also late last year, the company staged what it described as the "the largest number of future astronauts to date," with an estimated 400 customers and 240 other people attending the "Your Flight DNA" informational event at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

"As Virgin Galactic progresses towards commercial flight, we periodically gather together with our wonderful family of Virgin Galactic future astronauts, not only to thank them for their commitment to the program, but to also celebrate our most recent milestones and successes," Branson said about the event.

"With supersonic powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo well underway, a full commercial service is fast approaching," he said.

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