Virgin Galactic bans Chinese nationals from space flights over espionage fears

US regulations from the Cold War covering rockets will stop Chinese tourists, but others wonder if Galactic's rockets are powerful enough in the first place

Chinese nationals have been banned from flying on the commercial space flights operated by Virgin Galactic over fears that the rocket technology being implemented will be stolen.

This is due to the fact that the British firm will be launching its craft from the US, where strict anti-espionage regulations introduced during the Cold War still restrict the privileges of citizens from countries such as China, Iran and North Korea.

Because Galactic’s craft are powered by rocket engines it is seen as a potential military technology and covered by the US's International Traffic in Arms regulations.

“We have had calls from people in China but we have to tell them we can’t accept them if they only have a Chinese passport,” said a Hong Kong-based Virgin Galactic salesman.

“We advise them on how they can make themselves eligible for a space tour. For example, they can get another nationality’s passport or they can apply for a [American] Green Card.”

The news certainly deprives Virgin Galactic of access to a huge potential market of wealthy Chinese businessmen willing to pay the $250,000 (£151,000) ticket price for a space flight, but the company might also have more substantial problems.

Tom Bower, author of new biography of Galactic-founder Richard Branson called Branson: Behind the Mask, has claimed that the company is still missing several critical elements in its plans for space tourism, including a rocket powerful enough to power the craft.

“Virgin Galactic is in danger of turning into a white elephant,” Bower told The  Sunday Times, adding that so far the company has “only managed to fire a primitive rocket for 20 seconds in the Earth’s atmosphere” whilst rivals such as PayPal-founder Elon Musk have already sent manned rockets into orbit.

Dates for Galactic’s first flight have been missed repeatedly since the company was founded in 2004, with an original target of 2007 successively dropped to 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and then 2013. The current target is for a flight to take place this year.

"With each flight test, we are progressively closer to our target of starting commercial service in 2014," the company said earlier this month. Branson himself responded to Bower’s claims by reminding his twitter followers that “Rome was not built in a day. Sending passengers into space is a little more complex!”