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Space tourism countdown begins as Virgin unveils factory

Partnership between Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites--The Spaceship Company--formally opens the final assembly plant for the spacecrafts that will whisk tourists to the stars.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo are seen together at an event in Mojave, Calif., on Monday to mark the opening of The Spaceship Company's new assembly facilities.

MOJAVE, Calif.--"We build spaceships."

That's the motto--perhaps the coolest ever?--of The Spaceship Company, the partnership between Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, builder of the X-Prize-winning SpaceShip One and its younger sister ship, SpaceShip Two.

And on Monday, The Spaceship Company (TSC) formally opened what it calls FAITH, the final assembly facility for SpaceShip Two and the aircraft on which it piggybacks, WhiteKnight Two. At the celebration, Virgin Galactic showed off, for the first time at a public event, a replica of SpaceShipOne, as well as the actual WhiteKnightOne, SpaceShipTwo, and WhiteKnightTwo (see video below).

A sparkling 68,000-square-foot, LEED-certified hangar, the Final Assembly, Integration and Test Facility, which is located at the Mojave Air and Space Port on the edge of the desert here, will be where The Spaceship Company will build the Virgin Galactic fleet. That means, in the short term at least, TSC will be building two more WhiteKnight Twos and at least two SpaceShip Twos, said Enrico Palermo, TSC's vice president of operations.

In 2004, Scaled Composites--and its founder, Burt Rutan--won the X Prize by being the first team to ever fly a privately manned craft into space. SpaceShipOne, which was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to the tune of $26 million, flew three times into space. That craft is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Virgin Galactic also contracted with Scaled Composites, and sponsored its X Prize flight attempts. Afterward that partnership continued, with the creation of the SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo program for the eventual dawn of the space tourism industry.

Now The Spaceship Company is employing 100 people in Mojave. And with the opening of the FAITH facility here, Virgin Galactic and TSC CEO George Whitesides said, "our to open space up to dramatically more people and uses than ever before. The Spaceship Company is building its first vehicles now and we have high hopes that there will be more to come."

Already, Virgin Galactic has booked $60 million worth of flights from people in 46 countries. It's not clear when the company will begin sending tourists into space, but Whitesides said it is hoped SpaceShipTwo will make its initial test flights into space sometime next year.

And while Virgin Galactic will be based at Spaceport America in New Mexico, Whitesides said it is hoped that someday the company will be able to launch flights from places all over the United States. "We aspire to changing the game of space," he said. "Who knows? Maybe one day we'll have vehicles flying from one spaceport to another."

But while space tourism is Virgin Galactic's first business, it is thought that a second major opportunity for the company is space research. According to Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic's commercial director, such research, for outfits like the Southwest Research Institution and even NASA--which has granted Virgin Galactic a contract for its Flight Opportunities program--could well be a second big source of revenue.

Business for Mojave
Another speaker at the event was Stuart Witt, manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port. Witt told the crowd gathered for the event that the idea for using Mojave's aviation facilities for space operations had been a "tough sell" at first, but that today there are 2,000 working at the Mojave Air and Space port, and that there are 68 total leases here. As proof that the commercial space industry is for real, Witt pointed to the fact that TSC had committed to a 30-year lease on its 68,000 feet of "environmentally sound space," as well as that there are currently 14 industry companies setting up shop here.

Though the event Monday was attended by a number of local and state politicians, as well as executives for TSC, Virgin Galactic, and Scaled Composites, Richard Branson, Burt Rutan, and Paul Allen were visibly absent.

But one notable person who was on hand to share his thoughts was Brian Binne, the pilot who flew the X-Prize winning flights in 2004 for Scaled Composites, and who still works for the company as a test pilot.

"We have our heads down in the trenches, and we [can] lose sight of the forest for the trees," Binne told CNET in regard to what the Monday celebration meant to him. "Milestones like this help lift our spirits and help us stand back and say we really are making progress. The eyes of the world really do focus on Mojave to see what's happening."