LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Virgin Galactic spaceship destroyed in an explosion high over the Mojave Desert was designed to take tourists on a fleeting thrill ride through the lower reaches of space.
But even in the aftermath of Friday's fatal accident, company founder Richard Branson reminded reporters that he has always intended to build a system to take people to faraway places on Earth.
"This is the start of a long program," he said Saturday, describing plans to eventually offer "point-to-point travel."
Here are some answers to questions about the difference between the space-tourism plan and a point-to-point system.
WHAT IS VIRGIN GALACTIC CURRENTLY OFFERING?
The company's spacecraft, dubbed SpaceShipTwo, is designed to be carried high into the sky by a jet-powered mothership and then released for rocket-powered flight to an altitude of 62 miles or higher, providing six passengers with a stunning view of the Earth below and a brief period of weightlessness. It would then descend as an unpowered glider, returning to the same airport where it left. A seat on each prospective flight costs $250,000.
WHAT DOES BRANSON MEAN BY POINT-TO-POINT TRAVEL?
Point-to-point travel would link distant points on the Earth's surface with flights that leave the atmosphere and enter space, then re-enter the atmosphere to land. The advantage over regular airlines would be a significant reduction in travel time. A trip from London to Sydney, Australia, for example, would take only a few hours. A trip from New York to London would take less than an hour.
WHAT WOULD IT TAKE TO ACHIEVE POINT-TO-POINT TRAVEL?
In 2004, SpaceShipOne demonstrated that a rocket pilot could manually fly the suborbital flight profile for the type of quick hop that is the immediate goal for space-tourism flights. However, suborbital flights between continents would require sophisticated guidance. In addition, the rocket motor would have to be powerful enough for the spaceship to cross oceans.