Yesterday, at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur famed for his airline and music businesses, unveiled his latest space transport designs for a system capable of carrying passengers on sub-orbital flights on a paid basis to his Virgin Galactic operation. The designs of the new spacecraft and its launch craft, respectively named SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two, expand upon the work done by aeronautics legend Burt Rutan's company Scaled Composites, of Mojave, Calif., which won the coveted Ansari X Prize in 2004 by becoming the first private endeavor to achieve human spaceflight. Virgin Galactic said that the new spaceship and mothership will begin flight tests this summer in New Mexico.
"I think it's very important that we make a genuine commercial success of this project," Branson said to the gathered media yesterday, according to an account from BBC News. "If we do, I believe we'll unlock a wall of private sector money into both space launch systems and space technology. This could rival the scale of investment in the mobile phone and Internet technologies after they were unlocked from their military origins and thrown open to the private sector."
The construction of SpaceShipTwo is reportedly 60 percent complete. It is being built to accommodate a crew of two pilots and six passengers, who will fly sometime in 2009, if all goes according to plan, from a facility called Spaceport America, near Upham, N.M. The overall flight should last about 2.5 hours and reach an altitude of 110 kilometers (the defined edge of space), where it will provide passengers with the experience of weightlessness for approximately 6 minutes, as well as a view of the planet below that only a few professional space travelers have seen before. In recompense, the spacecraft's first 100 passengers will pay Virgin Galactic US $200 000.
The company announced that it has already received tens of millions of dollars in deposits from some 200 individuals who would like to be early participants aboard the new spacecraft, which will be christened VSS Enterprise. The list of civilian pioneers includes actor William Shatner, famed for helming the fictional ship of the same name in the TV series "Star Trek", as well as other celebrities such as Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Hawking, according to Virgin Galactic.
Branson also said at the New York press conference that SpaceShipTwo will be made available to research groups interested in launching payloads into near orbit at a fraction of the price of rocket delivery.
"As far as science is concerned, this system offers tremendous potential to researchers who will be able to fly experiments much more often than before, helping to answer key questions about Earth's climate and the mysteries of the universe," Branson told the media.
On its Web site, Virgin Galactic noted that the White Knight Two mothership will be powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A engines, 'which are amongst the most powerful, economic, and efficient engines available', as part of a call on Branson's part to make the entire project as environmentally responsible as possible.
In a prepared statement on the site, Branson said yesterday: "[W]e are all very excited about the prospect of being able to develop a bio-fuel solution for the space launch system and we are looking forward to working with Pratt and Whitney and Virgin Fuels to trial an appropriate bio mix for the PW308A engines that will be powering our new carrier aircraft."
To herald the advent of the new era of civilian space travel, the marketing department at Virgin Galactic is dubbing 2008 as "The Year of the Spaceship."
It should be quite an auspicious calendar to keep track of.