Virgin Galactic to conduct first space test flight this year

Virgin Galactic
, part of mogul Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, announced on Monday that it plans to conduct the first test flight of its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft at some point this year.

The first commercial flights for Virgin Galactic’s suborbital passenger service isn’t expected to start until between 2013 and 2014, but nearly 500 customers have already jotted their names down for a trip on the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo spacecraft.

Tickets for flights aboard the SpaceShipTwo don’t come cheap, either–Virgin Galactic prices each flight at around $200,000 per person. The flights will take passengers to a height of around 68 miles, where they’ll experience a few minutes of zero gravity, and the opportunity to get a high altitude view of the Earth below with the blackness of space above them.

It will undoubtedly be quite the adventure for anyone willing to throw down $200,000 for a two hour flight (only about six minutes of those two hours will be in zero gravity), but it goes to show that affordable commercial suborbital flight is still a ways off.

“In the suborbital area, there are a lot of things to be done. This is an area that has been essentially absent for about four decades,” Reuters quoted Neil Armstrong, who was a test pilot for the 1960s-era X-15 research plane before becoming a U.S. astronaut and commander of the first mission to land on the moon.

“There’s a lot of opportunity. I certainly hope that some of the new approaches will prove to be profitable and useful.”