At a press conference in New York today, Richard Branson, founder of the space-tourism outfit Virgin Galactic, unveiled models of engineer Burt Rutan's SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo, the passenger- and launch-vehicles that will ferry Branson's first customers into space.
SpaceShipTwo is meant as a commercial sequel to Rutan's original design, SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X Prize in 2004 for being the first private plane to make it into space twice in a two-week period. That plane flew out of this world on the back of a launch vehicle called WhiteKnight.
To judge from the photos, the new planes look super-duper badass, to use an aviation term. WhiteKnightTwo is something like a huge trouser hanger in the sky -- a large central wing that connects two passenger cabins. SpaceShipTwo will attach to WhiteKnightTwo in between those two cabins.
WhiteKnightTwo will fly up to 50,000 feet high; passengers sitting on it will thus get some experience of a spaceflight, including some moments of weightlessness. But at that point, the fun's over for these people. The folks sitting in between them on SpaceShipTwo -- you might call them First Class passengers -- get to start the real show.
SpaceShipTwo will unhook from WhiteKnightTwo and then fire off its rockets, flying to more than 62 miles up. SpaceShipTwo's wings then rotate up, turning the plane into a glider that can come back down to earth.
Virgin Galactic aims to test parts of the projected flight later this year, but there's no solid timeframe for when the first passengers might go up. Already 200 people have paid deposits to fly into space (it costs upwards of $200,000 per person). At full operation, Virgin say each SpaceShipTwo/WhiteKnightTwo pair can make two flights per day; SpaceShipTwo carries six passengers and two crew members.
Reports from the conference suggest that the engineers spent much time discussing the flight's safety. The flight will be at least a hundred times safer than today's missions to space, Rutan said, but it won't be as safe as modern commercial aviation.
Entrepreneur Unveils New Tourist Spacecraft [New York Times]
Virgin Galactic unveils SpaceShipTwo; Plans open architecture spaceship [Between the Lines]
First Look at SpaceShipTwo [MSNBC Cosmic Log]