A former U.S. Air Force test pilot beat out a field of more than 500 applicants that included NASA astronauts to win a job as a pilot for Virgin Galactic.
The space tourism company founded by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson said today it had hired 44-year-old Keith Colmer -- call sign "Coma" -- as its first competitively selected astronaut, joining Chief Pilot David Mackay.
"I am extremely honored to have been the first astronaut pilot selected through competition to join the team," Colmer said in a press release. "Virgin Galactic is truly revolutionizing the way we go to space, and I am looking forward to being a part of that."
An MIT graduate and veteran of combat missions in Iraq, Colmer has logged over 5,000 hours in over 90 different types of aircraft. He was the first Air National Guard pilot selected to attend the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base.
"Keith brings the kind of tremendous multi-dimensional talent and skill set that we are looking for in our astronaut pilots," said George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic. "But equally important to us are his impeccable character and his outstanding record of high caliber performance in highly demanding environments. He sets the bar very high for others to come."
Virgin Galactic hopes to conduct powered suborbital flights of its WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo vehicles in 2012, with commercial flights beginning late that year or in 2013.
A spokesman said the company plans to hire several more astronauts as commercial operations come online, and it's not yet known who will pilot the first flight of six customers -- each paying $200,000 -- into space.
The company last week dedicated a terminal at Spaceport America in Las Cruces, N.M., which will serve as its initial base. Flight testing is based in Mojave, Calif., and includes pilots from vehicle manufacturer Scaled Composites.
IMAGE: Courtesy Virgin Galactic