Virgin wants more seats in space

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Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites asked to configure SpaceShipOne for seven or nine passengers to 'help the economics'

Sir Richard Branson has asked designer Burt Rutan to study the feasibility of increasing the size of the Virgin Galactic sub-orbital spacecraft to accommodate up to nine passengers.

Under initial plans unveiled in September, Rutan's Scaled Composites company was to design and build a vehicle able to carry five passengers for commercial spaceflights due to begin in early 2007 (Flight International, 5-11 October). However Branson, speaking at Scaled's Mojave, California headquarters late last month, said he has asked Rutan to look at scaling up the design for seven or possibly nine passengers to reduce the cost per seat.

"I've said: 'Let's look at a nine-seater and see what that brings the cost down to'," says the Virgin Group chairman. "It may help the economics." He says initial indications are that Rutan "thinks it will be relatively simple" to go up to nine seats.

The configuration of the spacecraft is due to be finalised early next year. Virgin Galactic is expected initially to operate five vehicles.

Branson, who says he will be on board the first commercial flight, claims to have received several thousand expressions of interest for tickets, which are expected to cost nearly $200,000 each. He plans to sink up to $100 million into Virgin Galactic.

Branson concedes that while he expects the flights to be "safer than earlier [generation] jets, people will have to accept early [commercial] space travel is not going to be as safe as sleeping in your bed at night".

Rutan's SpaceShipOne team in October won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize after completing two qualifying suborbital spaceflights within a two-week period. The first two SpaceShipOne flights, however, were afflicted by bouts of uncommanded roll, from which pilot Mike Melville was able to recover.

Scaled Composites director of flight operations Doug Shane says it is possible SpaceShipOne will fly again in support of the Virgin Galactic development effort.

Branson says he does not expect problems gaining certification for commercial space transport operations from the US Federal Aviation Administration's Commercial Space Transportation agency, despite concerns that regulations will not be approved in time to meet his proposed timetable.

ANDREW DOYLE / MOJAVE