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SpaceShipThree (SS3) will be the next generation of commercial spacecraft designed by Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic if the spaceflights of SpaceShipTwo (SS2) are successful. Whereas SpaceShipTwo is a suborbital spacecraft, SpaceShipThree will be an orbital spacecraft similar to the U. S. Space Shuttle.

SpaceShipThree will be built jointly by Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites and Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic. The advantage of a spacecraft such as SpaceShipThree will be that it will be able to dock with the International Space Station if desired or needed. This may become more relevant also after NASA retires the space shuttles in 2010.

Although orbital flight is much more expensive than suborbital spaceflight, some of the cost for the SpaceShipThree could be offset by winning the $50 million America's Space Prize sponsored by Bigelow Aerospace of Nevada.

In order to win the prize, though, SpaceShipThree will have to beat out a couple of other competitors along with building a craft that can go up 240 miles, make two orbits around the earth and repeat the same feat within 60 days. This has to be accomplished by January 10, 2010 in order to claim the winnings.

SpaceShipThree will be the first spacecraft in Scaled Composites' Tier Two program as the other vehicles are a part of the Tier One program. While SpaceShipOne was the first private spacecraft to reach Mach 3, which is required for suborbital spaceflight, SpaceShipThree will need to be able to reach Mach 25 in order break the necessary barriers and achieve the distances to start orbiting the earth. SpaceShipThree will also need to be much more protected from the heat of reentry than either of its two predecessors.

Testing of SpaceShipTwo is expected in the later part of 2007 or early 2008 with the first paying commercial spaceflights starting in 2009. This give the builders of SpaceShipThree some time to learn from the trials and errors of SpaceShipTwo and apply the learnings to building a bigger and better mousetrap.

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