Virgin Galactic Commercial Space Tourism Flights Delayed Until 2011?

There’s some fascinating news out of Sweden that points to a possible major delay in Virgin Galactic’s long-planned suborbital tourism flights:

Short tourist flights into space are expected to begin launching from northern Sweden in 2012, one of the companies involved in the project said Wednesday.

“We expect that the first tourist flights leaving from the United States will start around 2011 and that Kiruna (in northern Sweden) will be next about a year later, in 2012,” Spacesport Sweden spokeswoman Johanna Bergstroem-Roos told AFP.

The flights will be run by Virgin Galactic, owned by British tycoon Sir Richard Branson, which will first send paying customers around 110 kilometres (70 miles) above the earth from New Mexico in the United States.

Virgin Galactic officials had been predicting commercial SpaceShipTwo flights by the end of this year. But if this AFP report is correct, the schedule will slip until at least early 2011.

There has been no official confirmation from Virgin Galactic, but it does track with what another source told me earlier this week. It would not be surprising to see the program slip. The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft has gone through only two test flights thus far. SpaceShipTwo has not flown at all; it will not make its public debut until the Oshkosh air show at the end of July.

A July 2007 explosion at the Scaled Composites’ facility in Mojave, Calif., resulted in a major delay in the construction of SpaceShipTwo. Designer Burt Rutan said they did no work on the spaceship for a year while the investigated the cause of the blast, which killed three workers and injured three others.

SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft are much larger than the prototypes that builder Scaled Composites first flew into space nearly five years ago. SpaceShipOne was about the same size as the X-1 plane that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in back in 1947. It had a cramped cockpit
with seats for a pilot and two passengers (although it never flew any passengers).

SpaceShipTwo is twice as large and can carry two pilots and six passengers. The business jet-sized vehicle will enable tourists to float around in the cabin during a five-minute period of weightlessness. This is a far cry from the cramped confines of the ship’s experimental predecessor.

We’ll see what happens. But, it looks like the world’s elite millionauts-to-be will stay grounded for a bit longer.