By Irene Klotz
UPHAM, New Mexico (Reuters) - Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of billionaire Richard Branson's London-based Virgin Group, plans to compete in the upcoming race to develop orbital space vehicles, Branson said on Friday.
NASA plans to issue a solicitation as early as Monday for a follow-up to its $50 million Commercial Crew Development program, (for developing commercial crew spaceflight concepts), as part of a broader revamping of the U.S. space program under President Barack Obama.
The program is funding work by five companies -- Sierra Nevada Corp, Boeing Co, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin and Paragon Space Development -- as part of Obama's bid to bolster support for private space companies.
"There's about four companies that are seriously looking at it (the NASA commercial crew program)," Branson told Reuters.
He said Virgin Galactic was currently in discussions with two of the companies about teaming up with them and would decide over the next month whether to do so or go it alone.
One way or the other, Branson said, "We plan to be in orbital travel within the next few years."
Virgin Galactic expects to begin suborbital space flights in late 2011 or 2012. Its first spaceship, named VSS Enterprise, is undergoing testing by designer and manufacturer Scaled Composites of Mojave, California.
The spaceship and its carrier aircraft, the White Knight Two, were in New Mexico on Friday for dedication of the runway at a commercial spaceport located north of Las Cruces that will become Virgin Galactic's home base.
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.
The U.S. 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 U.S. space shuttle fleet.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Tom Brown and Carol Bishopric)