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Virgin Galactic unveils new spacecraft

The airframe (spaceframe?) of VSS Imagine is largely similar to VSS Unity, but chrome makes the new spacecraft shine brighter in the sun, reflecting enough light to make it observable by earthbound children who may watch the launches to come. That poetic tidbit came from Sir Richard Branson, the company founder, in a March 30 interview with CBS News that also included Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier, both of whom resisted repeated attempts to coax from them specifics on when tickets will be sold for less than $250,000.

“We’ve got an incredible few months of milestones ahead,” Branson said. “In the long term, the price will come down.”

Colglazier said that the plan calls for VSS Unity to make its next spaceflight in May with a full crew, followed by another with Branson getting his own first taste of space. Another of four planned test flights will include members of the Italian Air Force. In 2022, the company plans to “open up sales again” to paying customers, Colglazier said.

More than 600 people have booked a ride to space at $250,000 per seat, the company has told various media outlets. Expanding the fleet with a second “SpaceShip III” class spacecraft, VSS Inspire, followed by others, will allow the company to scale up operations to launch hundreds of paying astronauts on up to 400 flights per year “per spaceport,” the company noted in a press release.

Virgin Galactic has not yet announced specific plans to build other spaceports, but the company has reported discussions with officials in countries interested in hosting space tourism hubs, and estimated that each spaceport will generate $1 billion in annual revenue.

Changes made to the design of VSS Imagine, the first of a new series of Virgin Galactic spacecraft, are designed to speed up maintenance and reduce turnaround time. (VSS Unity is the only surviving SpaceShipTwo; the first was destroyed in a 2014 crash following an in-flight breakup that injured the pilot and killed the co-pilot. SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan, built by Scaled Composites, and flown by Mike Melvill, won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize given to the first reusable civilian spacecraft to reach space twice within a two-week period.)

The planned May launch of VSS Unity will be the first from Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

Branson told CBS that VSS Imagine, with its chrome-coated skin, looks “exactly” like what he imagined a spaceship should look like as a child.

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