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Prepare for lift-off

The first powered flight of Virgin Galactic's spaceship has brought space tourism a step closer: passengers could be on board next year

The first powered flight of Virgin Galactic's spaceship has brought space tourism a step closer: passengers could be on board next year

It sounds like something from science fiction. But billionaire businessman Richard Branson's dream of taking tourists into space is now a step closer after the spacecraft SpaceShipTwo made its first rocket-powered flight over California last month.

SS2, as it is known, was released into the upper atmosphere from a jet-powered carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. Its engines burned for just 16 seconds before it glided back to Earth to perform a conventional runway landing.

It was the spacecraft's first powered flight after three years of testing. Branson and his company Virgin Galactic now claim that the first passengers could be flying as early as next year. How would your students feel about being on board? Excited? Or terrified?

The spacecraft was officially unveiled on 7 December 2009 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was at the time governor of the US state. Virgin Galactic plans to operate a fleet of five SS2 spacecraft and has been taking passenger bookings for some time, at a minimum price of US$200,000 (#163;128,494).

Each spaceship will have room for eight people: six passengers and two pilots. The craft will launch at an altitude of 50,000ft (15,240m) and will go supersonic within eight seconds. Flights will last about two and a half hours, although only a few minutes of that will be in space. Reportedly, 400 customers have already paid for their flights.

The first rocket to reach 100km from the Earth's surface (the accepted boundary of space) was the German V-2 in 1942. Wernher von Braun, who oversaw its design, later worked with Nasa and was the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, which later helped to land the first men on the Moon. You could discuss that historic moment with your class.

In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space, Sputnik 1 (which means "Satellite 1" in Russian). By 1959, American and Russian scientists were competing to get a spacecraft to the Moon. The Russians made it first, in September 1959, with Luna 2. And on 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. The first woman in space was also a Russian, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.

But it was not until 20 July 1969 that the first man took "one giant leap for mankind" on the Moon, when Neil Armstrong, followed shortly by Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, became the first human to set foot on lunar soil.

Today, more than 500 working satellites are in space and scientists are investigating all kinds of questions about our solar system and beyond, such as whether there has ever been life on Mars. How would your students feel about living on another planet?

Class questions

What do you think when you look at the stars? What might they be made of?

How long would it take to travel to the moon?

If you designed a spaceship, what would you need on board to keep the astronauts alive?

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