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Richard Branson

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The world's largest airplane took a stroll the other day. Under the cloudless skies of the Mojave Desert, it rolled out of its hangar and powered down the runway. Slowly at first, then faster, 60 mph, then 70, then 80. But it stopped just short of liftoff, like a sprinter pulling up just before taking the long jump.

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HOUSTON — The journey to outer space for American astronauts for the past seven years has begun at a Soviet-era launch site in Kazakhstan, deep in Central Asia. There, they pay homage to Russian cosmonauts and graciously participate in the rituals of their hosts, even the tradition of urinating on the right rear tire of the bus that ferries them to the rocket.

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