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Photos: The making of SpaceShipTwo

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  1. Birds of a feather...

    SpaceShipTwo in full feather wing mode on a rapid descent from its drop altitude of 51,500 feet over Mojave,Calif., on Wednesday May 4, 2011. The feathered wing is at its full 65 degree angle and remained at this angle for 1 minute and 15 seconds. The craft descended in this configuration at a near vertical angle at a rate of 15,500 feet per minute. The craft was reconfigured to normal glide mode at 33,500 feet. All objectives of the flight were met. The flight duration of SpaceShipTwo following release was approximatel 11 minutes and 5 seconds. This photograph was taken with high powered telescopes from the ground. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Golden Gate ... to space?

    A new Virgin America A320 jet, aptly named "My Other Ride Is a Spaceship," flies in tandem with the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its mothership over the Golden Gate Bridge on April 6. The aircraft landed at San Francisco International Airport, becoming the first planes to arrive at the new $388 million, 640,000-square-foot Terminal 2. SpaceShipTwo is expected to begin rocket-powered suborbital test flights sometime in the next year - not from San Francisco, but from the Mojave Air and Space Port near Los Angeles. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin America) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ready for testing

    Onlookers inspect the back end of the mated WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo planes at the Mojave Air and Space Port during the rocket plane's Dec. 7 unveiling. The eight-person SpaceShipTwo, which was christened the VSS Enterprise, is the first of a series of space planes due to start commercial service in the 2011-2012 time frame. Tests of the rocket plane were to begin within days of the unveiling. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Spaceship's debut

    Illuminated by colored lights, the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is attached to its WhiteKnightTwo mothership during its rollout on Dec. 7 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. (Anrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Welcome aboard

    Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson prepares for flight inside the mothership Eve's cockpit at the EAA AirVenture air show in Wisconsin on July 27, 2009. The airplane's pilot, Pete Siebold, and Scaled Composites engineer Bob Morgan help with the preparations. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. First step to space

    The WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane known as Eve flies over mountains during a test flight from its home base at California's Mojave Air and Space Port. Eve is to serve as the mothership for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. SpaceShipTwo's test flights are due to begin in 2010. (Robert Scherer) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Riding the wave

    Virgin Group employees sit in the cabin of a prototype Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft at London's Science Museum in February 2007. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to the edge of outer space for a few minutes of weightlessness and an out-of-this-world view. The fare is $200,000 per passenger. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A ride for the boss

    Virgin Galactic's billionaire founder, Richard Branson, flashes a grin as he stands in front on VMS Eve, the WhiteKnightTwo airplane that will eventually carry SpaceShipTwo to its air launch. Branson took his first flight on Eve in July 2009 at the EAA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis. The plane is named after Branson's mother, who inspired the painting on the fuselage. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Window seats

    Windows dot the interior of the SpaceShipTwo passenger cabin, as seen during an early stage of the rocket plane's construction. The design is aimed at making sure each of the six passengers has a view of the curving Earth and the black sky of space from a height of 62 miles (100 kilometers). (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Fire away!

    The full-scale rocket motor to be used in SpaceShipTwo is successfully test-fired on May 6, 2009, at the Northrop Grumman test facility in San Clemente, Calif. The hybrid rocket motor was built by Scaled Composites and SpaceDev. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The making of SpaceShipTwo

    Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is the result of a years-long development effort, following up on the successful suborbital spaceflights of SpaceShipOne in 2004. In this photo, SpaceShipTwo's passenger cabin is being placed on the fuselage inside Scaled Composites' hangar in Mojave, Calif. (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 3/3/2010 9:21:05 PM ET 2010-03-04T02:21:05

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic plans to begin powered test flights of its rocket spaceship by 2011, marking a key milestone before launching regular service, the space tourism startup's president said Wednesday.

Will Whitehorn didn't specify when the company would put paying customers into space, but said he believes most of the major hurdles in the project have already been cleared.

"We're not looking at a huge amount of time," Whitehorn said during a visit to Dubai for a spaceflight conference. "As the year breaks into next year, we'll start moving into rocket motor testing and then into space."

Virgin has been signing up customers vying for the chance to be among its first passengers.

Whitehorn said the company has received nearly 330 bookings from customers who have put down deposits of up to $200,000 each to secure a seat. The company has so far taken in about $45 million in deposits, he said.

That enthusiasm has the company expecting to be profitable within two years of starting operations, Whitehorn said.

Virgin Galactic got a big financial boost last July when Aabar Investments, a state-backed investment fund from the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi, agreed to pump about $280 million into the company in exchange for nearly a third of the startup. Abu Dhabi is the capital and the largest of the seven semiautonomous sheikdoms making up the United Arab Emirates.

Whitehorn said Virgin, unlike some other commercial spaceflight companies, is not looking for any additional funding for now.

Parent company Virgin Group has put more than $100 million into its spaceflight venture since forming it in 2004. The company is working to develop flight vehicles with Scaled Composites, the Mojave, Calif.-based aeronautical firm that won the X Prize to build the first privately funded manned spaceship.

Virgin Galactic has yet to show that it can put paying customers in orbit, or make a profit doing so. Its bullet-shaped SpaceShipTwo rocket-powered vehicle will piggyback to 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) on a large jet-powered plane before blasting into outer spae at an altitude beyond 62 miles (100 kilometers).

The craft is based on Scaled Composites founder and famed aviation designer Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne prototype that won the X Prize in 2004.

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Virgin unveiled the first of its SpaceShipTwo vehicles, christened "Enterprise," in Mojave in December.

Whitehorn said the ship has largely wrapped up ground testing and will now undergo a series of flight tests, including being dropped from its launch vehicle for a number of unpowered glides.

Meanwhile, Virgin is working to finish a launch site in New Mexico, which this week enacted a law that aims to promote commercial spaceflight by requiring passengers to give their consent and be informed of the risks involved.

Several other companies are working on suborbital passenger spaceships, including XCOR Aerospace and Blue Origin.

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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