By Irene Mona Klotz
Cape Canaveral, Florida
Sir Richard Branson's plans to offer a commercial sub-orbital spaceflight service have run into some difficulty.
The first Virgin vehicle will be called VSS-Enterprise
His Virgin Galactic company wants to license the technology in the record-breaking SpaceShipOne vehicle created by US designer Burt Rutan.
But the process is being obstructed by US export control rules, particularly those that address technology with potential military applications.
The issue is likely to delay the service debut of Virgin's space liners.
Although the UK has long enjoyed favoured relations with its American friends, the partnership between the British entrepreneur's spaceflight subsidiary and Mr Rutan's US design team is churning waters on both sides of the Atlantic.
The export rules affect trade as well as the exchange of technical information between US firms and foreign entities - even those that share a mother tongue.
"I thought Britain was a relatively friendly nation," Mr Rutan quipped during a recent US Congressional hearing about commercial space flight.
"We have wrestled with this problem in terms of technology transfer to Virgin Atlantic for about five months now, and it has been difficult," he said.
Joining Mr Rutan before a House of Representatives' space oversight committee was Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, which is pursuing a licence to use technology Mr Rutan's firm, Scaled Composites, developed for SpaceShipOne, the world's first privately operated passenger spaceship.
The experimental vessel made three sub-orbital flights last year, winning a $10m prize and buoying hopes that ordinary, albeit wealthy, people would be able to experience spaceflight first-hand within a few years.
Virgin Galactic initially announced plans to launch its commercial space liner by 2007, but Mr Whitehorn now pegs its debut for 2008 or 2009.
Sir Richard's says his family will be first on board the space ship.
It is not the technical issues, or even the financing, that is causing concern. It is uncertainty about US licensing requirements.
"At this point we are not able to even view Scaled Composites' designs for the commercial space vehicle," Mr Whitehorn testified before the House committee.
"After US government technology-transfer issues are clarified, and addressed if deemed necessary, we hope to place a firm order for the spacecraft," he said.
Mr Rutan added that the regulations have already affected financing for the project, which originally was to come from Mr Branson's London-based Virgin Group.
"We have had to move away from the basic concept of this being a foreign-funded development," he said.
Mr Rutan saved his harshest criticism for another branch of the US government, the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which oversaw the flights of SpaceShipOne.
"The process just about ruined my programme," he said. "It resulted in cost overruns, increased the risk for my test pilots, did not reduce the risk to the non-involved public, destroyed our 'always question, never defend' safety policy and removed our opportunities to seek new innovative safety solutions."
Mr Rutan said the problems arose because the same rules that applied to unmanned, expendable boosters were being applied to passenger spaceships.
The risks of unmanned rocket launches are assessed on the basis of failure scenarios - involving calculations of, for example, how many people might be killed or hurt if an explosion occurred just after lift-off.
Instead, passenger-carrying spaceships, like airlines, needed to be handled with a focus on reducing the probability of failure, Mr Rutan said.
"The regulatory process was grossly misapplied for our research tests and, worse yet, is likely to be misapplied for the regulation of the future commercial space liners," Mr Rutan added.
Virgin Galactic initially plans to offer its sub-orbital space rides from the Mojave, California, base where SpaceShipOne flew.
Mr Whitehorn said about 100 people had signed contracts to pay $200,000 in advance for a spaceflight, while another 29,000 had agreed to make deposits of $20,000 for rides.
The spaceships are expected to be able to carry between five and nine passengers per flight. Each flier will have his or her own window to enjoy the view and can unstrap to float freely during the four to five minutes of weightlessness planned for each excursion.
Mr Rutan said that if the private spaceships could be made as safe as commercial aircraft were during their early days, up to 500 passengers would fly the first year the service was available and 3,000 people by the fifth year.
"By the 12th year, 50,000 to 100,000 astronauts will have enjoyed that black-sky view," Rutan said.