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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 February 2007, 17:11 GMT
MPs urged to back space tourism
Interior view of Virgin Galactic spaceship
Flights are planned for 2008
Space company Virgin Galactic has urged the government to allow it to launch passenger flights from the UK.

It said if the government failed to support the project with the necessary legislation, then "we will lose a massive opportunity".

MoD bases in Scotland and Cornwall would be suitable sites, it said.

Virgin Galactic, part of entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson's empire, plans to start commercial flights as early as 2008 after testing this year.

The vehicle will have room for five passengers
A week's pre-flight training will be required
Three-hour trip; three minutes of weightlessness
Flights to leave from Mojave Desert, initially
Tickets to cost about 100,000, perhaps less

Initial flights are due to takeoff from the Mojave desert, US.

Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn told MPs on the Commons Science and Technology Committee that RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland, would be the "ideal location" or St Mawgan in Cornwall.

"We need to have a legislative background in the UK that would allow this type of flight to take place here or we will lose a massive opportunity," he said.

The US has passed such legislation and Sweden is committed to investigating flights from one of its sites.

"We would like to operate here but at the moment there is no body and no locus to allow us to do it."

He said the "biggest challenge" of flying from the UK was the weather.

Operating from Lossiemouth during summer would be possible because it has a very long runway and cleared military air space above the Moray Firth necessary for the spacecraft's re-entry.

Two hundred people, including 35 Britons, had paid a "deposit and signed up" to a 100,000 ticket for training and a three hour flight, which amounted to about 10% of the 200m investment needed.

Brief weightlessness

Mr Whitehorn said that "within five years we can get the cost down to $75,000 and eventually down after nine years to $50,000, which is 25,000".

"That will allow people to get up into space with three days training and see the planet Earth.

"They won't stay there for very long, they'll only experience weightlessness for a few minutes, but the most important thing is that they will understand this planet a lot better in doing it."

Nasa had also agreed to buy seats on the flights as part of "early astronaut training", and had also lent staff to the company to help develop the space craft Mr Whitehorn said on Wednesday.

Mr Whitehorn said the environmental effect of getting six people into space would be less than the cost of a business class ticket from London to New York.

However, the environmental impact was questioned by Aviation Environment Federation.

The federation's Jeff Gazzard said the project was "a play thing" of multi-millionaires - a claim dismissed by Mr Whitehorn, who said most of the early passengers were scientists.

The US space agency (Nasa) has confirmed that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with Virgin, to "explore the potential for collaborations on the development of space suits, heat shields for spaceships, hybrid rocket motors and hypersonic vehicles capable of travelling five or more times the speed of sound".

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