The space tourism race marked a milestone yesterday as Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan, an American aerospace designer waved to a crowd from inside the cabin of an exotic jet that will carry a passenger spaceship to launch altitude. The photo-op was the public unveiling of the White Knight Two mother ship before a crowd of engineers, dignitaries and space enthusiasts at the Mohave Air & Space Port in the high desert north of Los Angeles.
The four-engine jet, with its 140-foot (42.6-metre) single wing, is an engineering marvel. The space between its twin fuselages is where SpaceShipTwo, the passenger rocket being built for Mr Branson's Virgin Galactic, will be mounted. White Knight Two, billed as the world's largest all-carbon-composite aeroplane, is "one of the most beautiful and extraordinary aviation vehicles ever developed," Mr Branson proclaimed. White Knight Two is the brainchild of Mr Rutan, who made history in 2004 when his SpaceShipOne became the first private, manned craft to reach space. SpaceShipOne accomplished it with help from White Knight Two's smaller predecessor, White Knight.
After winning $10 million for the feat, Mr Rutan partnered with Mr Branson, the chairman of Virgin Group, to commercialise the prototype. White Knight Two's long-awaited rollout, a year after a deadly explosion rocked Mr Rutan's test site, is the first tangible sign of progress toward making space tourism a reality. Despite the glitz surrounding the event, significant hurdles remain. The aircraft must undergo at least a year of rigorous flight tests starting in the fall. In addition, workers have to finish building SpaceShipTwo, which will be flown by two pilots and carry six passengers.
Matthew Upchurch, 46, who reserved a future flight, said he felt goose bumps when he saw White Knight Two. "It was very emotional for me," said Mr Upchurch, who heads a luxury travel company that works with Virgin Galactic. "I thought, `Oh my God, we're getting closer'." The mother ship rollout also moved Mr Rutan, who has made a career of designing unconventional aircraft. "Even though this is a pretty weird airplane, we all expect it fly very well," said Mr Rutan, who traded his usual leather jacket for a white button-down shirt with a Virgin Galactic logo.
Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo, which is 70 per cent complete, remained under wraps. It sat in a hangar several hundred metres away from White Knight Two shrouded in a black tarp. A sticker on it read "Coming Soon ... To A Spaceport Near You." In the history of spaceflight, most astronauts have been in government programs. In recent years, a handful of wealthy people have paid about $20 million each to ride Russian rockets to the international space station. Virgin Galactic envisions a future where space voyages will become as common as aeroplane travel. It wants to fly 500 people into space in the first year for $200,000 a head. If it succeeds, that would be on par with the same number of people who have gone up in 45 years of space travel. So far, more than 250 wannabe astronauts have paid the full amount or put down a deposit to fly with Virgin Galactic, but when they will float in zero gravity is unknown.
Mr Rutan has declined to release a schedule. Virgin Galactic stopped predicting after it said in a 2004 press release that flights could begin in 2007. Virgin Galactic renamed White Knight Two after Mr Branson's mother, Eve. The mother ship is designed to tuck SpaceShipTwo under the centre of its wing and release it at 15,240 metres. After separation, SpaceShipTwo will fire its hybrid rocket and climb some 100 kilometres above Earth, the internationally recognised boundary of space. The spaceflight - up and back down without circling the Earth - will include about five minutes of weightlessness. The total trip, from White Knight Two's take-off to SpaceShipTwo's unpowered landing, will last about 2 hours and thirty minutes. Yesterday's unveiling was bittersweet for Mr Rutan's company, Scaled Composites LLC. A year ago, three technicians were killed in an explosion while testing SpaceShipTwo's propellant system. Scaled, which was since bought by Northrop Grumman Corp., held a ceremony last week in honour of the fallen workers.