Virgin Galactic dedicates spacecraft runway

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Virgin Galactic's first spaceship, named VSS Enterprise, and its carrier aircraft, the White Knight Two, were in New Mexico for the dedication of the runway at a commercial spaceport located north of Las Cruces that will become Virgin Galactic's home base.

Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of billionaire Richard Branson's London-based Virgin Group, expects to begin suborbital space flights in late 2011 or 2012.

The event drew about 600 people to the southern New Mexico desert, including about 30 of the more than 380 customers who already have paid or put down deposits for the $200,000 suborbital space rides.

Virgin Galactic plans to compete in the upcoming race to develop orbital space vehicles.

The US human space program has been thrown into turmoil by President Obama's decision, on advice from an outside advisory panel, to end NASA's follow-on moon program called Constellation, and embark on a more flexible approach to deep space exploration.

That plan, unveiled in February, will make the government a customer, rather than provider, for crew transportation services to the International Space Station following next year's grounding of the aging US space shuttle fleet.

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