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Virgin Galactic, NASA want to fly you between cities in super-quick time

It may be on the verge of sending its first paying passengers on tourism trips to the edge of space, but Virgin Galactic is also looking to use its technology to launch a high-speed global travel service.

The company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson announced this week that it has inked a deal with NASA as part of its efforts to help it reach this goal.

Virgin Galactic has long spoken of its desire to launch city-to-city commercial flights using an aircraft that would fly even faster than the now-defunct Concord aircraft, which had a maximum speed of 1,354 mph (2,179 kph).

The NASA deal also includes The Spaceship Company, the Virgin Galactic subsidiary that makes the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft currently being tested for Virgin Galactic’s planned space tourism service.

In a post on its website, Virgin Galactic said the agreement with NASA would enable faster collaboration to produce “technically feasible, high-Mach vehicles … for the next-generation of safe and efficient high-speed air travel, with a focus on customer experience and environmental responsibility.”

NASA, meanwhile, said the deal would allow it to “take advantage of new tools, techniques, and technologies developed over the last 50 years and to explore potential new solutions for the commercial aviation industry.”

Virgin Galactic’s current technology comprises the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo suborbital plane, called VSS Unity, and the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. For the forthcoming tourism trips, WhiteKnightTwo will deploy Unity at an altitude of about 15,240 meters (50,000 feet) before the plane and its eight occupants (two pilots and six passengers) soar to the edge of space. It’s too early to say what kind of aircraft design the company envisions for a point-to-point passenger service.

In other developments, Virgin Galactic revealed that 400 people have so far dropped the $1,000 deposit for a space tourism trip. The full price for a seat on the service, which could make its debut this year, is a cool $250,000. Those forking out for the trip of a lifetime will be treated to stunning views of Earth around 62 miles up, along with a brief period of weightlessness, before gliding back to terra firma. VSS Unity recently conducted its first flight test at its new Spaceport America base in Arizona, where the tourism flights will start and finish.

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Trevor Mogg
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