I’ve always thought that space travel was a project for big government due to the complex physics and the huge amount of money involved. But I’m wrong. Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson (above in the pic) along with designer Burt Rutan (the guy on the right) and investor Paul Allen have been working on Virgin’s Galactic’s own space program for a while now, and our now ready to take space tourism to the next level, unveiling the company's SpaceShipTwo craft (that's the small gray module under the wing in the middle) as well as the White Knight Two (the big white thingie), which carries SS2 into sub-orbit the rocket. As of right now, SS2 is 60% complete, with test flights expected to begin this summer.
At today’s press conference in New York City's America Museum of Natural History, Branson showed off models of SS2 (it will carry six passengers and two pilots). It’s not a rocket that launches from the ground — instead SpaceShipTwo is carried by the mothership, White Knight Two, to an altitude of 50,000 feet. SS2 is supported on the way up by an ultrastrong, 140-foot-long wing, which can also be used to carry satellites.
Hit Continue below for a play-by-play of how a typical trip to space will go, and what it takes to get on board.
The White Knight has two cabins that are exact copies of SpaceShipTwo’s cabin (so ride-alongs get a taste of weightlessness and the space experience) and four Pratt & Whitney jet engines on either side of the central booms. Once White Knight Two reaches 50,000 feet, it drops SpaceShipTwo, which starts up its hybrid rocket engine and heads to the edge of outer space. This concept makes a lot of sense since firing a traditional rocket from the ground is expensive and dangerous. And besides, it certainly isn’t green: half the weight of a typical rocket is fuel, and that gets all burned up by the time they even reach 50,000 feet.
"Sign me up," I said to one of the attending commercial astronauts Natasha Pavloich (first pic in the second row in the gallery below), a pilot and the Ambassador of Slobomir, Republic of Srpaka (Serbia). There are already over 100 people in line for spaceflights, she tells to me, and each of them has paid $200,000 for the honor. Upon seeing my face drain of color, she explains it to me in another way: Once this project
gets off the ground is up and runnin (figure 5 years or so), the price will drop big-time. Consider that in 1939 a coach ticket from South Hampton England to New York City would have cost $47,000 in today’s money (according to Virgin). It’s Virgin's way of saying that early adaptors have to spend a Iot of money. Personally, I don’t get much comfort from that.