December 9, 2009

Virgin Unveils First Commercial Space Ship

Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson unveiled the new bullet-shaped commercial rocket plane that will give tourists the opportunity to take a ride into space and see the Earth while experiencing the thrill of weightlessness.

The spacecraft, about the size of a large business jet with wide windows and seats for six, represents a costly gamble on a commercial space tourism industry.

The British billionaire said Monday that he hopes to sell tickets for the Virgin Galactic spaceliner at $200,000 a piece, which is a fraction of what it costs to board a NASA shuttle or Russian spaceship.

Doling out between $250 million and $400 million on the space project, Branson added that he planned to be the first passenger in about 18 months. He would be taking his family and the U.S. designer of the spaceship, Burt Rutan.

The sleek design of the craft gives it a futuristic appeal. It is composed of two parts, the SpaceShipTwo and the WhiteKnightTwo, the prototype of which has been named Virgin MotherShip Eve after Branson's mother.

There is an image painted on the craft of a young woman depicting Branson's mother, Eve, diving through space, resembling two jet aircraft's fused together at the tip of their wings.

The White Knight will carry the two-pilot, six-passenger SpaceShipTwo well above the Earth, where the space pod will separate and be propelled beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Branson said it "is attached to the mothership in the middle and when the mothership gets up to 60,000 feet, the spaceship will drop away."

"They will ignite the rocket and it will go from zero to 2,500 miles per hour in 10 seconds," he told AFP.

After reaching suborbital space, SpaceShipTwo passengers would have a spectacular view of the Earth from portholes next to their seats or could get out of their seats and float about the spacious vessel in zero gravity.

"This is a very big space ship so you have got a lot of room to float around, lots of windows to look out," Branson said.

"There will be two astronauts at the front, but the six passengers will be astronauts by the time they are finished," he said.

The unique design of the ship lets it return to Earth like a shuttlecock, which would keep it from building up heat like some NASA spaceships.

Branson said that he has had the idea of offering space travel for years.

"I think the idea came when I was sitting watching the moon landing many years ago," he told AFP.

"I know there are literally thousands of people who would love to go to space, to be able to look out the window, to marvel at the beautiful Earth, and through Virgin Galactic we will make it possible."

There are now more than 300 people who have signed up for the space tour with Virgin Galactic, including actress Victoria Principal, who attend the event at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California's Mojave desert.

Hollywood director Bryan Singer, environmental theorist James Lovelock, and magazine publisher Silvano Payne also signed up after attending the event.

Even with the current economic crisis, the company has seen quite a demand for tickets aboard the novel spaceship.

"The interest for flying into space is absolutely huge," said Pamela Hurley-Moser, who owns a Portland, Maine-based travel agency accredited to sell Virgin Galactic tickets.

"The next available option is 45 million dollars with the Russians," she said.

The new technology "is more than just about suborbital space, this is just the infancy of a whole new era in space exploration," said Hurley-Moser.

The White Knight mothership finished a year of "rigorous and successful" first phase flight testing before the attachment of SpaceShipTwo and another period of intensive testing will also be performed.

SpaceShipTwo, constructed with carbon composite materials like the mothership, will be powered by a hybrid rocket motor that is currently being developed.

However, Branson said its unveiling "continues to provide tangible evidence that this ambitious project is not only moving rapidly, but also making tremendous progress towards our goal of safe commercial operation."

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson are to christen SpaceShipTwo with the name Virgin Space Ship Enterprise.

New Mexico is building a space port in Upham with a 10,000-foot runway that is set to be done by mid-2010.

SpaceShipTwo comes after SpaceShipOne, which is a single-seat suborbital spaceplane also designed by Rutan, that won the 2004 Ansari X-Prize for the first manned private spacecraft.

SpaceShipOne, displayed at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, made three suborbital flights.

In 1986, Rutan made aviation history with the Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling.

Branson said that he is proud that Virgin is pioneering commercial space travel. "I am sure there will be other people who will compete with us and I am sure that one day we will have a Virgin hotel in space," he said.

"One day we will transport people from Paris to Australia in two hours using similar technology, so I think a lot could come from today's event."


Image Caption: SpaceShipTwo Roll Out, Mojave. Credit Jack Brockway/Virgin Galactic


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