Russia’s Soyuz Spacecraft: 46 Years and Still Soaring High


In just a couple of days a Soyuz rocket will lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, and Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Roman Romanenko within the TMA-07M capsule on a two-day trip to the ISS. While many improvements have been made to the Soyuz rockets and spacecraft since the first launch in 1966, the bottom line is that the Soyuz have become the world’s most used launch vehicles due to their consistent performance and relatively low cost.

Here, CSA astronaut Chris Hadfield talks about the Soyuz, briefly describing the strengths of the Russian technology that will once again take him and fellow Expedition 34/35 crew members to the ISS, where in March of next year he will become the first Canadian to take command of the Station.

“This is a safe and reliable and proven way to leave the Earth, and each successive Soyuz is different; each one has small changes. The role of the astronaut is to learn those small changes… and learn to apply them.”

– Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield

The T version of the Soyuz craft began flying manned missions in 1980 and in 1986 the TM versions were transporting crews to Mir. The TMA upgrade addressed previous astronaut/cosmonaut height restrictions and permits the Soyuz to be used as a lifeboat for ISS crews, if necessary.

Find out more about the long history of the Soyuz spacecraft here, and read more about today’s Soyuz rollout here.

Video: CSA. Inset image: NASA/Carla Cioffi

‘Jetman’ Flies Again

Wondering where your jetpack is? This guy built his own. Known as Jetman or Fusionman, former fighter pilot Yves Rossy has used his jetpack to fly over various places like the Grand Canyon, the Swiss Alps, across the English Channel and has even flown in formation with jet planes. This week he dropped from a helicopter strapped to his winged jetpack to circle over Rio de Janeiro. Ride along and enjoy the views from his helmet cam. He lands successfully, just a couple feet short of his target.

See images of his latest flight on Rossy’s website.

NASA’s Airborne Observatory Targets Newborn Stars

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(DING!) “The captain has turned off the safety lights – you are now free to explore the infrared Universe.”

Mounted inside the fuselage of a Boeing 747SP aircraft, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, is capable of searching the sky in infrared light with a sensitivity impossible from ground-based instruments. Cruising at 39,000 to 45,000 feet, its 100-inch telescope operates above 99% of the atmospheric water vapor that would otherwise interfere with such observations, and thus is able to pierce through vast interstellar clouds of gas and dust to find what lies within.

Its latest discovery has uncovered a cluster of newborn stars within a giant cloud of gas and dust 6,400 light-years from Earth.

The massive stars are still enshrouded in the gas cloud from which they formed, a region located in the direction of Perseus called W3. The Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument was able to peer through the cloud and locate up to 15 massive young stars clustered together in a compact region, designated W3A.

SOFIA's 747SP on the ground at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base, CA. (NASA/Tony Landis)

W3A’s stars are seen in various stages of formation, and their effects on nearby clouds of gas and dust are evident in the FORCAST inset image above. A dark bubble, which the arrow is pointing to, is a hole created by emissions from the largest of the young stars, and the greenish coloration surrounding it designates regions where the dust and large molecules have been destroyed by powerful radiation.

Without SOFIA’s infrared imaging capabilities newborn stars like those seen in W3A would be much harder to observe, since their visible and ultraviolet light typically can’t escape the cool, opaque dust clouds where they are located.

The radiation emitted by these massive young stars may eventually spur more star formation within the surrounding clouds. Our own Sun likely formed in this same way, 5 billion years ago, within a cluster of its own stellar siblings which have all long since drifted apart. By observing clusters like W3A astronomers hope to better understand the process of star birth and ultimately the formation of our own solar system.

Read more on the SOFIA news release here.

The observation team’s research principal investigator is Terry Herter of Cornell University. The data were analyzed and interpreted by the FORCAST team with Francisco Salgado and Alexander Tielens of the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands plus SOFIA staff scientist James De Buizer. These papers have been submitted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

New Plans for ESA’s Experimental Re-entry Vehicle

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ESA and Arianespace have signed a contract planning the launch of ESA’s new IXV (Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle) on Europe’s new Vega Rocket in 2014. Vega is Europe’s new small launch system and it is designed to complement the heavy Ariane 5 and medium Soyuz Rocket systems launched from French Guiana.

The small rocket is capable of a wide range of payloads up to 1.5 tonnes, compared to Ariane 5 which can lift 20 tonnes, making it especially suitable for the commercial space market. The Vega Rocket will launch the IXV into a suborbital trajectory from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, IXV will then return to Earth as if from a low-orbit mission, to test and qualify new critical technologies for future re-entry vehicles.

Vega Rocket Credit: Arianespace

The IXV will reach a velocity of 7.5km/s at an altitude of around 450km and then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere gathering data about its flight. The vehicle will encounter hypersonic and supersonic speeds and will be controlled with complex avionics, thrusters and flaps.

Once the vehicle’s speed has been reduced enough, it will deploy a parachute, descend and land safely in the Pacific Ocean.

This flight will record data for the next five VERTA missions (Vega Research and Technology Accompaniment – Programme), which will demonstrate the systems re-usable versatility.

Two launches a year are planned for the new programme and construction of infrastructure including mission control and communications networks is currently underway.

Development and completion of the design, manufacturing and assembly is now underway for a flight window between January and September 2014.

VERTA (Vega Research and Technology Accompaniment – Programme) Credit: Arianespace

Source: ESA

Revolutionary Air-Launched Commercial Rocket to Orbit Announced by Microsoft Billionaire Paul Allen

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A mega quartet of luminaries led by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and legendary aerospace designer Burt Rutan have joined forces to create a revolutionary new approach to space travel. This new privately funded venture entails the development of a mammoth air-launched space transportation system that aims to dramatically cut the high costs and risks of launching both cargo and human crews to low Earth orbit.

Allen and Rutan are teaming up with Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, and Michael Griffin, former NASA Administrator, to build the world’s largest aircraft ever flown and use it as a platform to loft a multi-stage SpaceX rocket that will deliver a payload of some 13,500 pounds into earth orbit, about the same class as a Delta II.

Allen and Rutan hope to build upon the spaceflight revolution that they pioneered with the suborbital SpaceShipOne in 2004, which was the first privately funded spaceship to reach the edge of space, and now take the critical next step and actually vault all the way to orbit.


Video Caption: Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering innovative solutions to revolutionize space transportation to orbit.

To accomplish this innovative leap, Allen and Rutan, announced the formation of a new company, funded by Allen, called Stratolaunch Systems at a press briefing today, Dec. 13, held in Seattle, WA. Allen is a billionaire and philanthropist who has funded a host of projects to advance science,

“Our national aspirations for space exploration have been receding,” Allen lamented at the start of the briefing. “This year saw the end of NASA’s space shuttle program. Constellation, which would have taken us back to the moon, has been mothballed as well. For the first time since John Glenn, America cannot fly its own astronauts into space.”

“With government funded spaceflight diminishing, there’s a much expanded opportunity for privately funded efforts.”

Rutan said that Stratolaunch will build a 1.2 million pound carrier aircraft sporting a wingspan of 385 feet – longer than a football field – and which will be powered by six 747 engines on takeoff. The carrier will be a twin fuselage vehicle, like the WhiteKnight developed by Rutan to launch SpaceShipOne.

Air launch of SpaceX rocket to orbit

The 120 foot long SpaceX rocket, weighing up to 490,000 pounds, will be slung in between and dropped at an altitude of about 30,000 feet for the remaining ascent to orbit.

SpaceX will construct a shorter, less powerful version of the firms existing Falcon 9 rocket, which may be either a Falcon 4 or Falcon 5 depending on specifications.

The new launch system will operate from a large airport or spaceport like the Kennedy Space Center, require a 12,000 feet long runway for takeoff and landing and be capable of flying up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point. Crews aboard the huge carrier aircraft will also conduct the countdown and firing of the booster and will monitor payload blasting to orbit.

“I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne – to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system,” Allen said. “We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel.”

The goal of Stratolaunch is to “bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions,” according to a company statement.

Plans call for a first orbital flight within five years by around 2016. Test flights could begin around 2015.

“We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets,” said Mike Griffin. “Our system will also provide the flexibility to launch from a large variety of locations.”

Mike Griffin added that the venture is aiming for the small to medium class payload market similar to what has been served by the venerable Delta II rocket, which is now being retired after decades of service.

“NASA’s science satellites could also be lofted by Stratolaunch.”

“At some point this vehicle could loft a crew of say six people,” Griffin stated.

“This is an exciting day,” concluded Allen.

“Stratolaunch will keep America at the forefront of space exploration and give tomorrow’s children something to search for in the night sky and dream about. Work has already started on our project at the Mojave Spaceport.”

SpaceX Dragon cargo spaceship propels commercial and science payloads to orbit following air-launch from gigantic carrier aircraft. Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

Commander of Final Shuttle Mission to Leave NASA

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On Dec. 9, 2011, NASA will witness the departure of the astronaut who served as commander for the final space shuttle mission STS-135. Chris Ferguson has announced his plans to retire from the space agency so that he can enter the private sector. With Ferguson’s departure, all of the commanders who flew the final three shuttle missions have left or will be departing NASA.

With no defined human space flight mission objectives in place and with the only ride to space currently being Russia’s Soyuz Spacecraft many astronauts are leaving the agency for other prospects. The space agency is losing an astronaut at the rate of one astronaut every two months. As of Dec. 9 NASA will have 58 astronauts in its active roster.

Ferguson has flown into space, twice on space shuttle Atlantis, logging over 40 days in space. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

Ferguson is a retired U.S. Navy captain – his command of Atlantis’ final flight marked his third trip into space. The 13-day mission was a resupply flight to the International Space Station and saw some 10,000 pounds of supplies and spare parts delivered to the orbiting outpost. With the final landing, conducted on July 21, 2011, Ferguson and his crew wrapped up the shuttle program’s 30 year history.

“Chris has been a great friend, a tremendous professional and an invaluable asset to the NASA team and the astronaut office,” said Peggy Whitson, chief of the Astronaut Office. “His exceptional leadership helped ensure a perfect final flight of the space shuttle,
a fitting tribute to the thousands who made the program possible.”

Ferguson (third from left) has opted to leave NASA to pursue a job in the private sector. His departure comes at a time when NASA is losing many of its experienced space flyers. Image Credit: NASA.gov

Ferguson’s very first mission, STS-115, was also on Atlantis. He served as the pilot on this mission which took place in 2006 and delivered the P3 and P4 truss segments to the space station. His next shuttle flight was STS-126 on shuttle Endeavour, this mission saw water reclamation and habitation systems transported to the ISS (as well as conducting a crew swap out). Ferguson has over 40 days of space flight experience.

Ferguson joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1998. Upon his completion of initial astronaut training, he performed technical duties related to the shuttle’s main engines (SSMEs), the orbiter’s large, orange external tank, solid rocket boosters (SRBs) as well as software utilized on the shuttles. Before he was given the nod to be the commander of STS-135, Ferguson was the deputy chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center located in Houston, Texas.

“Chris has been a true leader at NASA,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, “not just as a commander of the space shuttle, but also as an exemplary civil servant, a distinguished Navy officer and a good friend. I am confident he will succeed in his next career as he brings his skill and talents to new endeavors.”

Chris Ferguson has served NASA in a variety of roles since being accepted as an astronaut in 1998. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

X-37B – The Gift That Keeps On Giving


Video provided courtesy of United Launch Alliance

The United States Air Force’s second flight of the X-37B – is headed into extra innings. Known as the Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2) this robotic mini space shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Mar. 5, 2011. Although the U.S. Air Force has kept mum regarding details about the space plane’s mission – it has announced that the OTV-2 has exceeded its endurance limit of 270 days on orbit as of the end of November.

The OTV is launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket. The space plane is protected within a fairing until it reaches orbit. After separation, the diminutive shuttle begins its mission.

OTV mission USA-226, as it is officially known, is by all accounts going smoothly and the spacecraft is reported to be in good health. The U.S. Air Force has not announced when OTV-2 will be directed to land.

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The fact that the space plane will continue to orbit beyond what its stated limits are highlights that the OTV has greater capabilities than what was officially announced. The first OTV flight launched in April of 2011 and landed 224 days later at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The U.S. Air Force is undoubtedly being more judicious with fuel stores on board the robotic spacecraft, allowing for a longer duration flight.

Much like NASA’s retired fleet of space shuttle orbiters, the OTV has a payload bay that allows for payloads and experiments to be conducted on-orbit. What payloads the U.S. Air Force has had on either mission – remains a secret.

Boeing has announced that the X-37B could be modified to conduct crewed missions to and from orbit. Tentatively named the X-37C, this spacecraft would be roughly twice the size of its unmanned cousin. If this variant goes into service it would be used to transport astronauts to and from the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

OTV USA-226 launched on Mar. 5, 2011 and has helped prove out the mini space plane's design. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

The X-37B has become a bit controversial of late. Members of the Chinese press have stated that the space plane raises concerns of an arms race in space. Xinhua News Agency and China Daily have expressed concern that the OTVs could be used to deliver weapons to orbit. The Pentagon has flatly denied these allegations. The clandestine nature of these flights have led to a wide variety of theories as to what the OTVs have been used to ferry to orbit.

Virgin Galactic Taps Test Flight Veteran As Pilot

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From a pool of 500 potential applicants, Virgin Galactic has found their man. The NewSpace firm chose from some of the greatest pilots the world has to offer to work to be a pilot for their company. U.S. Air Force test pilot Keith Colmer rose to the top of the list and was selected by Virgin Galactic to join the team that is working to allow private citizens a flight into space.

Virgin Galactic announced Colmer’s addition to the company’s space flight team on Oct. 26. He will join Virgin Galactic’s Pilot David Mackay as they work to get the company’s carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo and its spacecraft SpaceShipTwo into service. They will be joined by more pilots as the company works to begin operations in 2013.

Colmer brings 12 years of operational, developmental and experimental aircraft test flight experience plus more than 10 years of combined military experience in USAF spacecraft operations and flying. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

“Keith brings the kind of tremendous multi-dimensional talent and skill set that we are looking for in our astronaut pilots,” said Virgin Galactic’s President and CEO George Whitesides. “But equally important to us are his impeccable character and his outstanding record of high caliber performance in highly demanding environments. He sets the bar very high for others to come.”

“This team in Mojave is second to none,” said Mackay about Scaled Composite’s test pilots. “Keith and I are indeed fortunate to have their expertise and body of work to build on as we enter the final phases of the test program and prepare to open space to all.”

Colmer is a veteran pilot, with 12 years worth of experience in testing experimental aircraft. He has over 5,000 hours logged in more than 90 different types of aircraft.

Virgin Galactic is preparing to launch private citizens into space, potentially as early as 2013. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

Former NASA Space Shuttle Manager Mike Moses recently left NASA to work as Virgin Galactic’s Vice President of Operations. Virgin Galactic is working to begin powered test flights, and after that the company will try to begin commercial operations.

“I am extremely honored to have been the first astronaut pilot selected through competition to join the team,” said Colmer. “Virgin Galactic is truly revolutionizing the way we go to space and I am looking forward to being a part of that.”

Colmer has served as a combat pilot, flying an F-16 in two tours in Iraq with the Colorado Air National Guard. According to information provided in a Virgin Galactic press release he is the first Air National Guard pilot to ever be selected to attend the USAF Test Pilot School, at Edwards Air Force Base.

With the dedication of its spaceport located near Las Cruces, New Mexico; additions to its team such as former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager Mike Moses and others, Virgin Galactic is working to have the needed infrastructure in place to begin flight operations within the next two years. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Jeffrey Vock

Colmer has a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He holds a Masters degree in Aerospace Engineering and a Masters degree in Telecommunications from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a graduate of the USAF Undergraduate Space Training program, the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program and USAF Test Pilot School, Class 02A.

Virgin Galactic recently dedicated its Space Port in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The company is part of the London-based Virgin Group which is owned by Sir Richard Branson. The company formed after Scaled Composites one the $10 million Ansari X-PRIZE back in 2004. The flights of WhiteKnightOne and SpaceShipOne paved the way for the development of the vehicles that Virgin Galactic is planning on utilizing to begin suborbital space flight operations. Tickets for flights on the commercial space plane are set to cost approximately $200,000.

Bringing Satellites Out Of Retirement – The DARPA Phoenix Program

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It’s the dead zone. Approximately 22,000 miles above the Earth, $300 million worth of retired satellites are simply taking up space in geosynchronous orbit. Like anything a bit elderly, they might have problems, but they’re far from useless. There are a hundred willing volunteers waiting to be retrofitted, and all they need is the wave of a magic wand to come back to life. The DARPA Phoenix program might just be the answer.

Communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) enable vital interchanges between warfighters. When one fails, it means an expensive replacement. But what remains isn’t a burned-out shell – it’s still a viable piece of equipment which often contains still usable antennae, solar arrays and other components. The only problem is that we haven’t figured out a way to recycle them. Now DARPA’s Phoenix program is offering an answer by developing the technology necessary to “harvest” these non-working satellites and their working parts. “If this program is successful, space debris becomes space resource,” said DARPA Director, Regina E. Dugan.

However, as easy as the idea might sound, it’s going to take a lot of cooperation from a variety of applied sciences. For example, incorporating the robotics which allows a doctor to perform telesurgery from a remote location to the advanced remote imaging systems used for offshore drilling which views the ocean floor thousands of feet underwater. If this technology could be re-engineered to work at zero gravity, high-vacuum and under an intense radiation environment, it’s entirely possible to re-purpose retired GEO satellites.

“Satellites in GEO are not designed to be disassembled or repaired, so it’s not a matter of simply removing some nuts and bolts,” said David Barnhart, DARPA program manager. “This requires new remote imaging and robotics technology and special tools to grip, cut, and modify complex systems, since existing joints are usually molded or welded. Another challenge is developing new remote operating procedures to hold two parts together so a third robotic ‘hand’ can join them with a third part, such as a fastener, all in zero gravity. For a person operating such robotics, the complexity is similar to trying to assemble via remote control multiple Legos at the same time while looking through a telescope.”

Now enter DARPA’s System F6 – the master satellite. It will host affordable, smaller scale electronics and structural models that provide on-board control. These smaller units will be able to communicate with each other and the master satellite – working together to harness the potential of the retired satellite’s assets. Right now, the Phoenix program is looking for the automation technology for creating a new breed of “satlets,” or nanosatellites. These can be sent into space much more economically through existing commercial satellite launches and then robotically attached to the elderly satellites to create new systems.

Artist Concept of System F6 - Credit: DARPA

System F6 (Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange) will be fascinating in itself… a hive of wirelessly-interconnected modules capable of communicating with each other – sharing resources among themselves and utilizing resources found elsewhere within the cluster. “The program is predicated on the development of open interface standards—from the physical wireless link layer through the network protocol stack, including the real-time resource sharing middleware and cluster flight logic—to enable the emergence of a space “global commons” which would enhance the mutual security posture of all participants through interdependence.” says the DARPA team. “A key program goal is the industry-wide promulgation of these open interface standards for the sustainment and development of future fractionated systems.”

Right now the Phoenix program is looking for high tech expertise needed to develop a payload orbital delivery system. The PODS units will be needed to safely house the satlets during launch. The next step is an independent servicing station which will be placed in GEO and connected to PODS. The service module will be home to equipment such as mechanical arms and remote vision systems… the virtual “operating” center to make the DARPA Phoenix program a success.

Original News Source: DARPA News Release.
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NASA Strengthens Virgin Galactic Ties With New Contract

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NASA has, on a number of occasions tapped the NewSpace firm Virgin Galactic to help the space agency accomplish its objectives – recently, it has done so again. This new contract will see NASA science payloads take suborbital flights on the company’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) spacecraft. This however is not the first time that NASA has entered into an arrangement with the emerging commercial space flight firm.

NASA first began working with Virgin Galactic in 2007, when it entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to explore possible collaborative efforts to develop various equipment required to conduct space flight operations (space suits, heat shields, and other space flight elements).

Under this arrangement NASA will have one scientific mission flown aboard SpaceShipTwo with options for two additional flights. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

Earlier this year, NASA selected seven different firms that either had or were developing suborbital spacecraft – one of these was Virgin Galactic. The announcement that was made Thursday, Oct. 13 is actually the culmination of the Flight Opportunities Program, which was announced on Aug. 9 of this year and established to help NASA meet its technology and research development requirements.

The agreement to fly NASA payloads on SS2 was announced about a week after former NASA Shuttle Program Manager; Mike Moses stated he was leaving the space agency to work as Virgin Galactic’s vice president of operations. Moses will be in charge of all operations at Spaceport America, located near Las Cruces, New Mexico.

On these missions, not only will a carry a scientific payload but an engineer that will monitor the payload and operate the payload. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

“I’ve known Mike for a long time, from his flight controller days which led to him becoming a flight director and then moving into the shuttle program,” said Kyle Herring, a NASA public affairs officer. “I think he would be a very valuable asset to any organization that he went to. Mike’s expertise will be very beneficial in not just mission operations but ground operations as well.”

The NASA contract with Virgin Galactic is for one flight with the space agency optioning two additional flights (for a potential of three flights total). If NASA options all three flights, the total contract would be worth an estimated $4.5 million. The announcement came just four days prior to the dedication ceremony for the spaceport’s new headquarters (the dedication was on Monday, Oct. 17).

NASA will flight at least one experiment package on SpaceShipTwo, with an option to fly potentially two more. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

Each of these suborbital missions will have a trained engineer on board to handle the experiments.

Virgin Galactic is an arm of the London-based Virgin Group which is owned by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson. Virgin Galactic is working to provide tourists with suborbital flights into space that will allow these space passengers to briefly experience the micro-gravity environment. The flights will launch from a spaceport which is currently under construction near Las Cruces New Mexico. Tickets have been priced at about $200,000 each.

Former Space Shuttle Program Manager Mike Moses has joined Virgin Galactic as the company's vice president of operations. The company conducted a dedication ceremony of its new spaceport, located near Las Cruces, New Mexico on Monday, Oct. 17. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg