Wed, Jul 30, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Branson unveils plane that will launch spaceship

FOR MOM The entrepreneur plans to send tourists to space for US$200,000 each, launching them in a rocket from a plane he has nicknamed ‘Eve,’ after his mother

AGENCIES , LONDON AND MOJAVE, CALIFORNIA

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, front, celebrates the unveiling of the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft with his mother in Mojave, California, on Monday.

PHOTO: AP

Entrepeneur Richard Branson’s plan to extend his empire beyond planet Earth came a step closer to reality on Monday with the unveiling of a giant mothership that will help carry tourists to the edge of space.

Engineers pulled covers from WhiteKnightTwo, the world’s largest carbon-fiber aircraft, in the Mojave desert, California, where it is to begin months of test flights ahead of its first commercial trips in 18 months’ time.

The aircraft was displayed for a small group of reporters and invited guests at the California desert headquarters of Scaled Composites, the aerospace firm where it was built.

WhiteKnightTwo, nicknamed “Eve” after Branson’s mother, was designed as a high-altitude aircraft that will launch SpaceShipTwo from midair.

It sports twin fuselages and a 43m wingspan and will carry SpaceShipTwo under the center of its wing, between the two hulls. The plan is for the aircraft to free the spacecraft at about 15.2km, from where it will rocket into space.

Virgin Galactic, part of Branson’s airline, vacation and retail company Virgin Group, hopes to send its first paying customers into space for US$200,000 each within 18 months.

Branson said 200 people signed up for the ultimate sightseeing trip and that he expected the ticket price to drop significantly over the next five years.

Among the passengers expected to make the first trip are physicist Stephen Hawking, former Dallas actress Victoria Principal and designer Philippe Starck.

During the three-and-a-half-hour round trip, passengers will be propelled to an altitude of 110km at a speed of more than 3,200kph. As the spacecraft reaches the top of its trajectory the would-be astronauts will be able to unclip from their seats and experience four to six minutes of weightlessness.

The project was delayed following an accident a year ago. Three employees were killed and several seriously injured in an explosion while testing a propulsion system.

Virgin Galactic is one of several contenders in the new commercial space race.

Others include Europe’s EADS Astrium; Blue Origin, started by Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos; Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX), created by PayPal founder Elon Musk; Rocketplane Kistler; and Bigelow Aerospace, a venture aimed at creating space hotels, started by hotelier Robert Bigelow.

The leader in the budding sector is Space Adventures of Vienna, Virginia, which started the space tourism phenomenon in 2001 when it put US businessman Dennis Tito on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft headed for the International Space Station for a reported US$20 million.

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