Virgin Galactic's "Enterprise"

p>The maverick British billionaire whose team built the first private spacecraft to reach sub-orbital flight has his sights set on commercializing the high frontier in the not so distant future. Yesterday, in New York City, Sir Richard Branson showed off a design of the customized cabin for the first of the new SpaceShipTwo (SS2) vehicles—to be christened the Enterprise.

Branson said the Virgin Galactic spacecraft, to be built by Scaled Composites, of Mojave, Calif., will be completed in the second half of 2007, begin testing in early 2008, and start commercial operations in 2009. Speaking at Wired Magazine's NextFest conference, the British entrepreneur said: "Construction of SS2 is underway at Burt Rutan's factory ... and this is the first opportunity for the public to get a sneak preview of the sheer scale of what is under construction there."

The cabin mockup was designed by leading British product designer Seymour Powell. It accommodates a crew of eight—two pilots and six passengers—who will have to fly to sub-orbital space experiencing a 3-G force and then recline during the period the vehicle is under zero G. During this time, expected to only last a few minutes, passengers will be allowed to unbuckle and float freely before they return to their seats for the descent to the surface. The price tag for the ride of a lifetime will initially be US $250 000, according to Branson.

The music and travel tycoon has planned for a fleet of five SS2s in the coming years. Each will be hoisted into launch position, mid-air, by carrier craft known as WhiteKnightTwos. The work being done on the new project extends the successful effort culminated two years ago by launches of SpaceShipOne, which soared to an altitude of 100 kilometers to claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first privately owned vehicle to fly to outer space.

"Our vision is to successfully build the world's first environmentally benign space launch system and prove once and for all the commercial viability of a safe space launch system that we believe will eventually be capable of taking payload and science into space as well as people," Branson said yesterday, promising to make the SpaceShipTwo program as ecologically friendly as possible (last week, he pledged $3 billion of his fotune to support environmental causes). "If you're going to build a spaceship, you've got to build a green spaceship."

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