- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

MOJAVE, Calif. (AP) | The sleek, bullet-shaped spacecraft is about the size of a large business jet — with wide windows and seats for six well-heeled passengers to take a ride into space.

It’s billed as the world’s first commercial spaceship, designed to be carried aloft by an exotic jet before firing its rocket engine to climb beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

On Monday, Virgin Galactic took the cloak off SpaceShipTwo, which had been under secret development for two years. The company plans to sell suborbital space rides for $200,000 a ticket, offering passengers 2 1/2-hour flights that include about five minutes of weightlessness.

“We want this program to be a whole new beginning in a commercial era of space travel,” said Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who partnered with famed aviation designer Burt Rutan on the venture.

The British billionaire hopes to begin passenger flights out of New Mexico sometime in 2011 after a series of rigorous safety tests. Mr. Branson said he, his family and Mr. Rutan will be the first to fly on SpaceShipTwo.

SpaceShipTwo’s debut marks the first public appearance of a commercial passenger spacecraft. The white, stubby-winged spaceship sat in a Mojave Desert hangar, where it had been attached to the jet that will carry it to launch altitude.

SpaceShipTwo is based on Mr. Rutan’s design of a prototype called SpaceShipOne. In 2004, SpaceShipOne captured the $10 million Ansari X Prize by becoming the first privately manned craft to reach space.

Since that historic feat, engineers from Mr. Rutan’s Scaled Composites LLC have been laboring in the Mojave Desert on a larger design suitable for commercial use.

About 300 clients have paid the $200,000 ticket or placed a deposit, according to Virgin Galactic.

“NASA spent billions upon billions of dollars on space travel and has only managed to send 480 people,” Mr. Branson said. “We’re literally hoping to send thousands of people into space over the next couple of years. We want to make sure that we build a spaceship that is 100 percent safe.”

The last time there was this level of hoopla in the high desert was a little more than a year ago when Mr. Branson and Mr. Rutan trotted out to great fanfare the twin-fuselage mothership, White Knight Two, that will carry SpaceShipTwo.

Despite the hype, hard work lies ahead before space journeys could become as routine as air travel.

Flight testing of White Knight Two has been ongoing for the past year. The first SpaceShipTwo test flights are expected to start next year, with full-fledged space launches to its maximum altitude in 2011.

SpaceShipTwo, built from lightweight composite materials and powered by a rocket engine, is similar to its prototype cousin with three exceptions. It’s twice as large, measuring 60 feet long with a roomy cabin about the size of a Falcon 900 executive jet. It also has more windows including overhead portholes. And while SpaceShipOne was designed for three people, SpaceShipTwo can carry six passengers and two pilots.

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