x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Virgin Galactic Spaceliner unveiled

Richard Branson reveals his Virgin Galactic craft for tourists willing to pay US$200,000 (Dh734,600) a ticket.

LONDON // The rocket plane that Sir Richard Branson expects will take the world's first tourist astronauts into space within two years has been rolled out in the Mojave Desert in California. At a celebrity-studded event late on Monday, Sir Richard's Virgin Galactic company, in which Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments bought a 32 per cent stake for US$280 million (Dh1.02 billion) earlier this year, publicly unveiled SpaceShipTwo for the first time. Aside from California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and New Mexico's governor, Bill Richardson, the guests at the launch party included the actress Victoria Principal and the singer Sarah Brightman, who had a hit record early in her career called I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper. Other guests included some of the 300 or so people who have already bought $200,000 tickets to be taken into near-earth orbit aboard SpaceShipTwo. Accommodating two pilots and six passengers, the 18-metre craft will be carried to 15,000 metres by a conventional aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, where its single, hybrid rocket will blast the plane about 110km into the thermosphere at speeds of up to 4,200 kph. "I know there are literally thousands of people who would love to go to space, to be able to look out the window, to marvel at the beautiful Earth. Through Virgin Galactic we will make it possible," said Sir Richard. The British entrepreneur, who said he had wanted to go into space since seeing the first moon landings on TV, said he hoped he and his family, including his 92-year-old father, would be on the first flight planned for 18 months' time. So far, the only space travellers have been about 480 government-sponsored astronauts and a handful of billionaires willing to part with millions of dollars for a seat on a Russian spacecraft. "I think it will be an experience that will be out of this world, literally. An experience of a lifetime," Sir Richard added. "We're hoping to send thousands of people into space over the next couple of years." SpaceShipTwo will leave the ground at "Spaceport America", a taxpayer-funded facility in New Mexico, and Virgin Galactic currently plans to spend $400 million building a total of five spaceships and launch vehicles. Each trip will last about two and a half hours, including about five minutes of weightlessness. Scientists say that similar, suborbital technology could eventually revolutionise intercontinental air travel, with the potential to cut the flying time from the UK to Australia, for instance, to about two hours. dsapsted@thenational.ae