Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Australian Woomera may get Virgin spaceport

RICHARD Branson's Virgin Galactic is considering using Woomera as its second global launch site for space tourism rocket flights.

The company has confirmed that its next spaceport will be in Australia and has invited its Australian airline pilots to train as astronaut-pilots.

Virgin would be the second company operating tourist space flights from the Outback town.

U.S. firm Rocketplane Kistler, which is undertaking a $100 million upgrade of the Woomera site, says space tourism could be operating from Woomera as early as 2008.

"Woomera is certainly on our agenda," said Kistler Woomera chairman Alan Evans.

He said Woomera was a suitable site for a tourism spaceport, adding: "It has the infrastructure. And we have plans to see if there is a market for such flights in Australia."

Rocketplane Kistler recently secured a $272 million NASA contract to launch rockets from Woomera, carrying cargo to the International Space Station. It has scheduled the first launch of its K-1 cargo rocket from Woomera in late 2008.

Rocketplane Kistler plans to launch its first space tourism flights from a spaceport in Oklahoma early in 2008. At a cost of $200,000 per person, the first flight is booked out.

Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn, on the company website, says: "(Australia) will be our second location. With plenty of open space and proximity to the Asian market."

While Virgin has not disclosed an Australian spaceport site, Woomera is the only operational rocket range in the country.

Virgin plans to have 30 astronaut-pilots trained for the launch of Virgin Galactic's space program in 2008.

Half the astronauts will be recruited from NASA and the others from the Virgin airline group. They will train in the U.S. before becoming the first qualified pilot-astronauts operating out of Australia.

Virgin Galactic spacecraft test flights are scheduled to begin early in 2008 in California's Mojave Desert and the first space tourist flights launched in 2009 from a spaceport being built in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic reported a strong demand for space travel, saying it has already taken advance bookings worth $24 million.

The passenger list includes actor William Shatner, who soared to fame as Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek , and Branson himself.

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