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New Virgin craft may fly next year

The space tourism company that suffered a tragic setback when its experimental rocket-powered spaceship broke apart over the California desert could resume test flights as early as next summer if it can finish building a replacement craft.

The sleek composite shell and tail section of the new craft is sitting inside the Virgin Galactic's manufacturing plant in Mojave, California.

It is beginning to look like a spaceship, but Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said there was much work to be done, from relatively simple things such as installing windows to the more complex fitting of flight controls and other wiring.

The ship, called SpaceShipTwo Serial No 2, will replace the one that was destroyed last week after its feathering system that controls descent deployed prematurely and aerodynamic forces ripped it apart, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot.

In the wake of the accident, workers have focused on building the new ship.

"That's provided some solace to all of us, and I think there's sort of a therapeutic benefit to folks to be able to put their energies into constructive work," Mr Whitesides said.

He said the company, founded by Virgin tycoon Sir Richard Branson, would be able to continue flying its mother ship - the much larger jet-powered plane that launches the rocket ship at higher altitudes - while investigators look into the cause of the deadly crash with the company's co-operation.

It is possible that test flights for the next spaceship could begin within six months, before the investigation is scheduled to conclude, Mr Whitesides said.

Virgin Galactic has an experimental permit from the Federal Aviation Administration to test its spacecraft. Just last month the company had received approval from the agency to resume rocket-powered flights.

The National Transportation Safety Board said there's nothing preventing Virgin from continuing to fly, but it wasn't immediately clear if the company would have to file another request with the FAA under its existing permit to start rocket-powered flights when the new ship is ready next year.

Speculation continues about how far the accident will push back the day when Virgin Galactic's paying customers can routinely rocket from a 219 million-dollar (£138m) spaceport in the New Mexico desert towards the edge of space for a fleeting feeling of weightlessness and a breathtaking view.

Mr Whitesides said the accident had been tough on many levels, but the company did not have to start from scratch.

"There was no question it was a tragic setback, but it's one from which we can recover," he said. "With Serial No 2, we'll be putting a stronger, even better ship into initial commercial service and I think we'll be able to get back into test flights soon and carry forward."

Virgin Galactic envisages flights with six passengers climbing more than 62 miles above Earth. Seats sell for 250,000 dollars (£157,000), and the company says it has booked passengers including Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Russell Brand. A few more passengers signed on this week, Mr Whitesides said.

Scaled Composites is developing the spacecraft for Virgin Galactic.

When the new ship is ready next year, the FAA will conduct a more extensive review to ensure whatever caused last week's crash has been addressed, before allowing test flights to resume.

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