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Travel

Space tourism

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic venture unveiled its new passenger spaceship on Friday, nearly 16 months after a fatal accident destroyed its sister ship during a test flight over California's Mojave Desert.

The rollout of the gleaming craft, dubbed Virgin Space Ship "Unity", marks Branson's return to a race among rival billionaire entrepreneurs to develop a vehicle that can take thrill-seekers, researchers and commercial customers on short hops into space.

From outward appearances, the new spacecraft is nearly identical to the one lost on Oct. 31, 2014. The accident was blamed on pilot error and oversights by Northrop Gumman Corp's Scaled Composites division, which designed, built and tested the first vehicle, known as SpaceShipTwo.

"We learned a lot from the accident, and we made a lot of changes," said Mike Moses, a former NASA shuttle manager who now oversees spaceflight operations for Galactic. The biggest difference between the two vehicles is the addition of a pin to prevent a pilot from unlocking the ship's rotating tail section too soon before descent, which is what triggered the breakup of the first spaceship, said Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides.

The two-pilot, six-passenger spaceship is designed to reach altitudes of 62 miles (100 km) above the planet, providing a few minutes of weightlessness and a view out the window of Earth set against the blackness of space. Despite the hefty $250,000 price tag, more than 600 people have already signed up, including Hollywood actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher as well as Canadian singer Justin Bieber.

at / is (reuters)