Virgin Galactic unveiled the design today of the two aircraft that will bring sub-orbital space travel to the wealthy within the next few years — and may eventually pave the way for lower-cost space travel.
At a packed and lengthy news conference, British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson and American designer Burt Rutan showed off scale models of two ships currently under construction at the Scaled Composites factory in Mojave, California. It was the first glimpse the public has had of the aircraft.
"2008 will really be the year of the spaceship," said Branson.
On a stage behind him were gleaming models of SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two. They're based on the Rutan technology that won the X Prize back in 2004 — a $10 million US competition for the first privately built manned spacecraft to reach a height of 100 kilometres.
As with the X Prize, SpaceShipTwo will first hitch a ride from a mothership. White Knight Two, a high-altitude jet, will be powered by four Quebec-made Pratt and Whitney PW308A engines. Once at a sufficient height, SpaceShipTwo would be released to fire its own rocket engine, carrying it to suborbital altitudes and giving passengers several minutes of weightlessness (to say nothing of the view).
"The designs of both the mothership and the new spaceship are absolutely beautiful and surpass any expectations..." said Branson.
Although several of Virgin Galactic's paying customers were in the crowd, the emphasis at the event was not solely on space tourism. White Knight Two has been designed to also carry satellites and payloads that could be launched into low-earth orbit by an unmanned booster rocket. There was also talk of point-to-point travel, where SpaceShipTwo (or its progeny) could slingshot halfway around the globe "able to take people from A to B around the atmosphere at literally incredible speeds," said Branson.
The initial wave of space tourists (Virgin has already received some $30 million US in deposits) will help fund future developments like this.
"The first generation of space tourists will be paving the way."
Those tourists include Branson's father, Ted, now 89. He's scheduled to be on the first flight.
"I think it's great. Very exciting," he said after the event.
Virgin Galactic says test flights of White Knight Two will begin this summer. But it would not commit to when paying customers will fly. Instead, it stressed that rigorous safety milestones would have to be met before any manned suborbital flights take place.