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January, 2019

Pacific Brands sackings \’won\’t be the last\’

The federal government has warned Australians to expect more bad news after clothing manufacturer Pacific Brands announced it would sack 1,850 workers.


Responsible for iconic brands such as King Gee, Yakka, Bonds, Jockey, Dunlop Volley and Holeproof, Pacific Brands refused overtures from the government three weeks ago to reconsider plans to cut jobs.

The decision comes despite the company having received $10 million a year under the government\’s textile clothing and footwear (TCF) industry structural adjustment program.

Rudd ‘disappointed’

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in parliament the devastating and distressing news for the workforce was extremely disappointing for the government.

“Pacific Brands\’ decision is bad news for the TCF sector and it is bad news for the economy,” Mr Rudd said.

He said he understood the company had told Industry Minister Kim Carr that nothing could be done to reverse the decision.

Senator Carr, Employment Minister Julia Gillard and Employment Participation Minister Brendan O\’Connor expressed their disappointment but warned there would be more to come.

Senator Carr told a news conference that he had heard of Pacific Brands\’ job-shedding plans three weeks ago and contacted the company directly.

Pacific Brands one of many

“I spoke to the chairman of the board and I specifically asked was there anything further we could do to get the company to change its mind, and the answer they have given me is \’No\’,” Senator Carr said.

He would not reveal the identities of any other companies the government had consulted recently and whether they were considering similar job cuts.

“We are in a position now to say that there are many, many companies that are facing an acute liquidity crisis,” Senator Carr said.

It was the result of a fall in demand, a story not uncommon throughout the manufacturing sector as a result of the economic downturn.

“This will not be the last day in which we have to deal with very disappointing news like this,” Senator Carr said.

Help for the workers

The government said it would offer intensive job search assistance available to all retrenched workers to the Pacific Brands workers.

They would also be eligible for a $1,350 account set aside for TCF industry under its structural adjustment program to help retrain sacked workers.

Senator Carr expressed confidence in the future of the industry, which employs 40,000 people around Australia.

The government is considering a review of the industry by Professor Roy Green and Senator Carr said it would be dealt with in the context of the May federal budget.

Workers to fight

Pacific Brand workers will first fight to defend their existing jobs before taking up government assistance.

A shattered workforce met outside Pacific Brands\’ Coolaroo plant saying they will fight for their jobs.

Coolaroo in Melbourne\’s north is one of seven plants around Australia that will close down over the next 18 months.

The Textile Clothing and Footwear Union Pacific Brands has accepted 17 million dollars from the federal government over the past two years to keep the business running and should have an obligation to keep jobs in Australia.

Miners burnt by market plunge

The focus this afternoon will be on the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), which is expected to cut interest rates again.


At 1217 AEDT, the benchmark S&P/ASX200 index was down 101.6 points, or 2.76 per cent, at 3,579.6, while the broader All Ordinaries fell 99.7 points, or 2.67 per cent, to 3,519.3.

On the Sydney Futures Exchange, the December share price index contract was down 89 points at 3,592 on a volume of 19,375 contracts.

Burrell Stockbroking associate Peter Wright said the local market was performing poorly on the back of a weak performance from

Wall Street.

“I saw that figure (the Dow) this morning and I thought – Oh, no. Here we go again,” he said.

Mr Wright said the expected interest rate cut would do little to counter the falls on the local market.

“Markets do anticipate these things, and I think they\’ve priced in 75 basis points.

“If we get more there will probably be a sell off as people will interpret that as though we\’re in a lot more trouble than what we


“It is probably a lose-lose situation for the market in its current mindset.”

BHP Billiton shares fell $1.92, or 6.42 per cent, to $27.98, and Rio Tinto shares lost $2.70, or 6.32 per cent, to $40.00.

In the US on Monday, the panel at the National Bureau of Economic Research confirmed that the economy has been in recession since December 2007.

US stocks finished lower, with the Dow Jones industrial average settling down 679.95 points, or 7.7 per cent, at 8,149.09 points.

Mr Wright said the panel had essentially redefined what constituted a recession.

“At the end of the day you can debate the semantics of it but the traditional metric for defining a recession has not been achieved (two consecutive quarters of GDP contraction).

“I was a bit perplexed by the markets reaction to that but that\’s the times we live in – any kind of negative news is just seized upon.”

The banks were lower. Commonwealth Bank fell $1.02 to $31.98, National Australia Bank dropped 34 cents to $19.09, ANZ declined 24 cents to $14.14 and Westpac was down 37 cents at $16.57.

The major energy stocks also were in the red.

Australia\’s second biggest oil and gas producer, Woodside Petroleum, was down $2.27, or 6.27 per cent, at $33.93, Santos dropped 33 cents, or 2.29 per cent, to $14.06 and Oil Search sank 29 cents, or 6.24 per cent, to $4.36.

Fairfax Media fell 6.5 cents, or 4.56 per cent, to $1.36, News Corp lost 20 cents, or 1.65 per cent, to $11.90, while its non-voting scrip was down 34 cents at $11.41.

Grocery and liquor merchant Metcash has posted a 7.2 per cent fall in first half profit after recording a one-off cost related to the termination of a hedging position.

Metcash was steady at $4.00. Harvey Norman Holdings gained 10 cents to $2.25 after it reported that sales for the four weeks ended November 30 rose by 0.5 per cent, from the corresponding period last year.

Other major retailers were mixed. Woolworths lost 46 cents to $26.84, Wesfarmers fell 57 cents to $18.37, while upmarket retailer David Jones was up 13 cents at $2.70.

US economy plummeted as European unemployment mounted

The US economy suffered a massive 6.


2 percent pace of decline at the end of 2008 and the eurozone shed 250,000 jobs in January, data showed Friday, as a fresh effort was launched to bail out Eastern Europe.

The US gross domestic product (GDP) fourth-quarter reading was far worse than the 5.4 percent rate expected by most analysts and underscored the challenges facing President Barack Obama\’s efforts to end the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression.

“While we now know that the US economy did indeed contract by a massive amount, early 2009 data suggests that the first quarter will also be quite grim,” said economist Dina Cover at TD Bank Financial Group.

“Durable goods orders sank like a stone in January, indicating that capital expenditure by businesses in the US has continued to shrink. This suggests that business confidence is still extremely low.”

Sharpest drop in 27 years

The drop was the sharpest since the first quarter of 1982, the Commerce Department data showed, and came as the world\’s largest economy was winding up a full year of recession.

The official Eurostat state reported meanwhile that the loss of 250,000 jobs in the 16 nations sharing the euro helped drive the eurozone unemployment rate to 8.2 percent, the highest in over two years.

“Persistent, and faster, rising unemployment will weigh down on eurozone consumer spending, especially as it will be liable to lead to slowing wage growth,” warned Howard Archer, chief European economist at IHS Global Insight.

Eastern European aid

With once-booming economies in Central and Eastern Europe particularly hard-hit by the crisis, three international lending bodies announced a massive aid package for the region\’s beleaguered banking sector.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank and the World Bank pledged to invest 24.5 billion euros (31billion dollars) in the region, the EBRD said.

“Eastern Europe is feeling the full blast of the global economic crisis,” said analysts from Dresdner Kleinwort in a note.

Some countries in the region could become “insolvent,” they warned.

Russia, another formerly vibrant economy, is also struggling as the global slowdown dampens demand for oil and gas, the country\’s principal exports.

And according to the powerful prime minister, the worst is yet to come.

“We are forced to conclude that the crisis is far from over — it has not yet even reached its peak,” Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in televised remarks.

Meanwhile Denmark and Finland reported falling into recession in the fourth quarter of 2008 and Sweden\’s economy shrank even further.

“We are in the midst of a long, cold and dark winter,” Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg told reporters in Stockholm.

Governments have mobilized trillions of dollars to counter the crisis, which has its roots in a brutal contraction in the US housing market and the subsequent collapse of bank-held mortgage-backed financial assets.

US to boost Citibank

Further underscoring those woes, the US government said it will boost its stake in Citigroup under a deal aimed at shoring up confidence in the troubled banking giant.

The government\’s stake will be raised to 36 percent from the current eight percent under the plan to convert 25 billion dollars of public capital injected in the form of preferred stock in the bank to ordinary shares, officials said.

The conversion does not call for more government funds but helps shore up the capital position of Citi, once the world\’s biggest financial services firm which has received 45 billion dollars in bailout funds from the government.

The move aims to avoid a feared nationalization of Citi, once the world\’s biggest financial firms, but analysts said the conversion gives the government effective control as the bank\’s largest shareholder.

Stimulus cash payments to be mailed out

The government\’s $42 billion economic stimulus package, which is aimed at staving off a recession, was passed by parliament on Friday.


Mr Swan said the first one-off bonuses, including the $900 single-income family bonus for families with one main earner, would be delivered by Centrelink from March 11.

The $950 back-to-school bonus, aimed at helping families with school age children with the costs of starting the 2009 school year, would also be mailed then.

Mr Swan said tax bonuses, of up to $900, for working Australians would be delivered from April 6, and people wanting to insulate their home could do so from July 1 by phoning 1800 808 751.

The National Building School Modernisation Program applications would be assessed by the states before April, he said.

Mr Swan said overnight figures from the European and US economies proved the urgent need for the government to provide “vital support” to Australia\’s economy.

Urgent action warranted

“What is going on internationally does demand urgent action from the Australian government,” Mr Swan told reporters in Brisbane on Saturday.

“Overnight we\’ve seen figures from the European community where the eurozone has shrunk in the December quarter by 1.5 per cent, that comes on figures last week where the shrinkage in the US economy in the December quarter was 1.0 per cent.

“What that means is that we\’ve got to get on with the job of implementing our national building plans and supporting households and businesses.

“What we\’ve got to do now is to roll up our sleeves, get on with the job of supporting

Baptiste takes 200m gold

England’s Leon Baptiste streaked to the men’s 200m title at the Commonwealth Games on Sunday as Kenya’s Boaz Lalang made the most of David Rudisha’s no-show to win the 800m.


Wales also got itself on the top step of the podium for the first time in Delhi with European champion Dai Greene winning the 400m hurdles gold ahead of South African defending champion Louis Van Zyl.

His Welsh training partner Rhys Williams was third.

“I am on such a high at this moment. This winter is going to be so easy with all these medals keeping me warm,” said Greene.

“There couldn’t be any better ending.”

Muizat Odumosu takes women’s crown

Nigeria’s Muizat Odumosu took the women’s crown, running the race of her life to beat Scotland’s Eilidh Child and Jamaica’s Nickiesha Boden.

But the women’s 200m final failed to go ahead due to a protest from the semi-finals held earlier in the evening involving fastest qualifier Elena Artymata of Cyprus.

She was disqualified for stepping out of her lane with her appeal later truned down.

Eight gold medals were decided in front of a packed Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, as the Games’ ticketing woes started being addressed.

Canada’s Alice Falaiye won the women’s long jump final but the event suffered a worrying moment when Nigeria’s Comfort Onyali was stretchered off.

Another Canadian, Nicole Forrester, leapt 1.91 metres to win the women’s high jump ahead of Sheree Francis of Jamaica, with Levern Spencer winning bronze — only the second ever medal for the tiny island of St Lucia.

Harradine wins discus gold

In the men’s discus, Australia’s Benn Harradine threw 65.45 metres to take the title, but the big cheers were reserved for local hope Vikas Gowda who grabbed silver ahead of England’s Carl Myerscough in bronze.

Baptiste came of age in the 200m, powering over the line in 20.45 seconds ahead of Jamaica’s Lansford Spence and Wales’ Christian Malcolm and he is now looking forward to tougher opposition.

“Obviously next for me is the tough job of trying to compete with Usain Bolt and the rest of the big guys, but I’m looking forward to it,” he said.

Despite 800m world record holder Rudisha not being here, Kenya proved it has plenty of depth in its squad with World Indoor Championships silver medallist Lalang striding to the title.

He led a Kenyan clean sweep with Richard Kipagat second and Abraham Kiplangat third, but their times were well off Steve Cram’s Commonwealth record and some five seconds behind Rudisha’s 1:41.01 world best.

“It was not so difficult. We were likely to win the medals and I want to congratulate the guys who ran the race,” said Lalang.

“We had planned it to finish one-two-three and it worked great. We didn’t say before who had to win, we just let it be decided in the race who was the best.”

Meanwhile, Australia’s Olympic silver medallist Sally Pearson, who was sensationally stripped of her 100m sprint gold for a false start, put the disappointment behind her to be the fastest into the 100m hurdles final.

Pearson clocked 13.02 seconds ahead of Canada’s Angela Whyte to be clear favourite in the absence of world number one Priscilla Lopes-Schliep of Canada.

“I have to just move on as best as I can and focus on my real event. That’s what I’m here for,” she said of the 100m drama.

Another high-profile athlete to miss the Games is South Africa’s world 800m champion Caster Semenya.

She pulled out with a back injury just months after the International Association of Athletics Federations ended a controversial probe into her gender that saw her sidelined for almost 11 months.

With Semenya out, Kenya’s Nancy Langat, who has already won the 1,500m here, is favourite for the title and she comfortably eased into Monday’s final.

Berlusconi-Putin ties ‘spark US concerns’

US diplomats voiced concern over Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi’s ties to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the grip of energy interests on Rome’s foreign policy, according to cables made public by WikiLeaks.


The whistle-blowing website had previously given a flavor of the US view of Berlusconi, described in extracts as Putin’s “mouthpiece,” but what appears to be a full cable from the US embassy in Rome, published today, gives a lengthier depiction of Italy as in thrall to Moscow.

The WikiLeaks revelations have increased pressure on Berlusconi, weakened by months of scandals and party infighting. He faces a no-confidence vote in parliament this month which could topple his center-right government.

“A foreign policy designed to deny Russia nothing” is the headline on one section of the 2009 cable, which highlighted the powerful role of oil and gas group ENI and suggesting Berlusconi and associates may have profited from energy deals with Russia.

The cable says Berlusconi sidelined Foreign Minister Franco Frattini almost entirely, going directly to Putin with whom he exchanged “lavish gifts” and considered he had a personal bond.

“The basis of the friendship is hard to determine but many interlocutors have told us that Berlusconi believes that Putin, a fellow ‘tycoon’, trusts Berlusconi more than any other European leader,” the cable from Ambassador Ronald Spogli read.

Other cables have included comment on Berlusconi’s taste for “partying hard” and the physical toll it took, prompting denials by the prime minister’s lawyer Niccolo Ghedini, who said the accounts were just recycled gossip from leftwing newspapers.

One referred to his ducking out of a state visit by the King of Jordan, giving the impression “he was husbanding his flagging energies for a blow-out party at Putin’s private dacha.”

Spogli’s cable said Berlusconi’s aides were reluctant to challenge him but even some members of his own PDL party had expressed concern over his “giddiness about Putin.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has this week gone out of her way to placate Berlusconi. In an earlier cable a US diplomat said he was dismissed by many as “feckless, vain and ineffective as a modern European leader.”

No better friend

On the sidelines of a summit meeting in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Clinton said: “We have no better friend.”

But the leaked document shows serious concern that Berlusconi, who irritated Washington with his support for Moscow during the 2008 Georgian war, was working “overtime” within the European Union on Moscow’s behalf.

“His overwhelming desire is to remain in Putin’s good graces, and he has frequently voiced opinions and declarations that have been passed to him directly by Putin,” the cable said.

Berlusconi, who has been in Kazakhstan for a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Italy’s relationship with the United States would not be affected by the reports and he denied any improper behavior.

“The United States knows very well that I have absolutely no interests with any other country, that there are no personal interests at all but that I have only acted with the interests of Italians and my country at heart,” he was quoted by Italian news agency ANSA as saying.

Leaked cables have highlighted the role allegedly played by Valentino Valentini, a Russian-speaking member of parliament who operated as Berlusconi’s “key man on Russia.”

“What he does in Moscow during his frequent visits is unclear but he is widely rumored to be looking after Berlusconi’s business interests in Russia,” one said.

In a statement, Valentini dismissed the leaks as “corridor chatter” which reflected the partial views of one ambassador.

“In reality, there is nothing mysterious about the relationship between Russia and Italy as I have often had the opportunity to tell Ambassador Spogli directly,” he said.

As well as the comments on Berlusconi, the cable highlights the important role played in Italian foreign policy by ENI, whose view of the European energy situation “was disturbingly similar to that of (Russian gas giant) Gazprom and the Kremlin.”

It said ENI wielded immense political power and ran a lobbying effort that was better funded than most government offices and which overshadowed the Foreign Ministry.

“One member of the opposition center-left PD party told political officers that ENI’s presence in Russia exceeds that of Italy’s understaffed embassy,” it said.

ENI chief executive Paolo Scaroni appeared underwhelmed by the reports. “Who’d have guessed I’d be talking about these things?” he told reporters at the margins of a conference.

Iranian woman freed from stoning

Iran has freed a woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, her son and her lawyer, a German-based campaign group told AFP Thursday after global outcry over the case.


“We have got news from Iran that they are free,” Mina Ahadi, spokeswoman for the Anti-Stoning Committee, told AFP.

“We are waiting for another confirmation: apparently there will be a programme this evening on (Iranian) television and then we will be 100 percent sure.”

There was no immediate confirmation from Tehran.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini immediately hailed the reported release and lauded it as “a great day for human rights.”

“Iran has made the gesture of understanding and clemency that we were hoping for and it did so using its prerogative as a sovereign state,” he said.

“It’s a decision that merits strong praise and satisfaction,” he said. “We take note of this in the knowledge that the prospect for dialogue with Iran also on human rights can resume in a spirit of renewed mutual confidence.”

Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two, was initially given death sentences by two different courts in the northwestern city of Tabriz in separate trials in 2006.

A sentence to hang for her involvement in the murder of her husband was commuted to a 10-year jail term by an appeals court in 2007.

But a second sentence, to death by stoning on charges of adultery levelled over several relationships, notably with the man convicted of her husband’s murder, was upheld by another appeals court the same year.

Sakineh’s current lawyer, Javid Houtan Kian, was arrested in the northwestern city of Tabriz in September along with two Germans who were conducting an interview with her son.

The Germans, who entered Iran on tourist visas, are accused of spying.

Rejecting the international outcry over the death sentence, the head of Iran’s High Human Rights Council drew parallels between her case and that of Teresa Lewis, a 41-year-old American grandmother who was executed in the United States in late September for murder.

“Our judiciary made a lot of efforts (in reviewing the case) and we think there is a good chance her life could be saved,” Mohammed Javad Larijani told Iran’s English-language Press TV in November.

Dozens dead in Baghdad blasts

At least 63 people have been killed and around 285 wounded in a coordinated series of bombings in Shi’ite districts across Baghdad.


Eleven coordinated car bombs rocked Shiite districts across the Iraqi capital on Tuesday, just two days after Al-Qaeda gunmen stormed a church in the heart of the capital and took dozens of worshippers hostage.

In that siege, 46 were killed and 60 wounded in a drama that ended with a raid by Iraqi special forces.

“Thirty-six people were killed and 320 wounded, but 80 percent of the wounded were treated and have left hospital,” Health Minister Saleh al-Hasnawi said on state television.

Shiites targeted

An interior ministry official said that all of the bombs targeted Shiite districts of the capital, and some had exploded near cafes or restaurants.

The biggest were in the eastern Husseiniyah and northern Kadhimiyah districts.

In a separate incident, four mortar rounds struck the mixed Shiite and Sunni district of Ghazaliyah earlier in the day, but there was no immediate report of possible casualties.

The interior ministry announced an immediate curfew in eastern Baghdad, closing off the attacked districts from the rest of the capital.

There was already a regular curfew in effect across the capital from midnight to 5:00 am.


Iraq has been without a government since inconclusive March 7 elections, in which the Shiite-led State of Law bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki finished a narrow second behind Iyad Allawi’s Sunni-dominated Iraqiya group.

Both have been locked in back-room negotiations with different political blocs, but neither has been able to muster the majority needed to form a government.

The power vacuum has contributed to an increasing sense of insecurity, with militants seen as seeking to take advantage of the situation.

Tuesday’s bombings and the attacks on Christians come as Iraq is trying to stagger back to its feet following the 2003 US-led invasion and the violence that followed, including an insurgency by Al-Qaeda militants and inter-confessional violence.

The car bombings and the attack on Christians are a blow to the country’s efforts to attract foreign investment and technology to rebuild the war-wrecked country.

Violence in Iraq has fallen dramatically since its peak in 2006-2007 but casualties from insurgent and military action are still routine.

October saw the least violence since November 2009, according to an official casualty toll released this week.

A total of 194 Iraqis were killed last month, including 53 Sunday during the hostage drama. Seven of the dead were security force personnel were killed.

Thousands flee fighting on Burma border

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At least three civilians were killed when heavy weapons fire hit the town of Myawaddy in Karen State, an official in Burma said.

There was no information on any troop casualties on either side. The violence erupted after an election on Sunday that was strongly criticised by the West because of widespread complaints of intimidation and the continued detention of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

More than 15,000 people had crossed into the Thai town of Mae Sot, fleeing fighting just across the border in Myawaddy, said Samard Loyfar, governor of Tak province in Thailand.

“But we are likely to repatriate them today,” he said, adding that he had heard reports suggesting the rebel groups had pulled out of Myawaddy.

A second pocket of unrest further south pushed some 5,000 people to seek refuge across the border on Monday, said district chief Jamras Srangnoi in Kanchanaburi in Thailand, but many had returned to their homes.

Zipporah Sein, the Thailand-based general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), said there had been fighting between government forces and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) troops in the two areas.

People in Myawaddy said fighting had subsided overnight with government troops pushing the rebel soldiers back into the forests.

One witness who has visited the town’s hospital reported about 10 deaths. “We heard the rebels just wanted to show their dissatisfaction with the election,” one resident said.

A simmering civil war has wracked parts of the country, including Karen State, since independence in 1948 and observers say the junta’s determination to crush ethnic minority rebels appears to have strengthened.

The Myawaddy clash followed an armed demonstration by the rebels in the town over Sunday’s election as well as attempts to force ethnic minority troops to join a “border guard force” – which would put them under state control.

Last week the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an exiled media organisation, reported that six armed groups in Burma’s troubled ethnic minority areas had agreed to help each other fight back if attacked by government forces.

Many groups have previously signed ceasefire agreements with the junta but tensions have increased, with fierce resistance to the government’s border guard force plan.

In areas where civil war continues, rights groups have accused the junta of waging a brutal counter-insurgency campaign involving the rape, torture and murder of villagers, whose homes are routinely destroyed.

The military has ruled the country since 1962 and the armed forces have doubled in size over the past two decades, to up to 400,000 personnel.

The Burmese authorities, citing security concerns, scrapped voting in swathes of ethnic-minority areas in Sunday’s election, widely decried as a sham to maintain military rule.

Pro-democracy parties which participated in the poll complained on Monday of “cheating” at polling booths, saying it had dimmed their earlier hopes of winning seats.

With 25 per cent of the seats in parliament reserved for military appointees whatever the outcome, the two main pro-junta parties needed to win just another 26 per cent from the elected seats to secure a majority.

More than 29 million people were eligible to vote but ahead of the vote many in the impoverished nation had appeared apathetic and disillusioned with the process.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon added his voice to the chorus of protests in the West over the election, saying it was “insufficiently” transparent and calling for the junta to release political prisoners.

Virgin Galactic joins NASA program

The teams, led by Orbital Sciences Corp.


and Sierra Nevada Corp., both propose flying passengers on reusable winged spaceships that launch on expendable rockets and land on runways like NASA’s space shuttles.

These designs “could revolutionize orbital space flight in much the same way that SpaceShipTwo has revolutionized suborbital space flight,” Virgin said in a statement, referring to the first of a fleet of suborbital commercial spaceships being developed by Scaled Composites.

Scaled built the prototype SpaceShipOne, which won a $10 million prize in 2004 for making the first privately funded human spaceflights.

Virgin is selling tickets to ride the six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo, named Enterprise, for $200,000, and plans to begin flight services in about a year.

The company has collected more than $54 million in deposits from 400 customers, Virgin Galactic said.

Orbital and Sierra Nevada are among at least four firms competing for the next round of funding in NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program.

The program would provide a U.S. alternative to flying astronauts to the International Space Station besides Russian Soyuz capsules after the space shuttles are retired in 2011.

The other bidders include Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, and Boeing. Privately owned SpaceX on December 8 successfully flew the cargo version of its Dragon capsule, which NASA is supporting under a separate development effort.

Orbital has a similar arrangement with NASA for a cargo-carrying Cygnus capsule, expected to debut next year.

SpaceX plans to upgrade Dragon for passengers with the addition of a launch escape system and other enhancements. Orbital plans a completely different spacecraft, not yet named, and launcher.

NASA plans to select two or more projects for funding by March. The agency, which is retiring its three space shuttles next year due to high operating costs and ongoing safety concerns, started its commercial crew development effort with $50 million in stimulus funds that went to five firms, including Sierra Nevada and Boeing.

The deadline for submitting proposals was Monday. NASA has not said how many proposals it received.

(Editing by Jane Sutton and Xavier Briand)

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