Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic space pioneers Richard Branson and Burt Rutan showed us a model of WhiteKnightTwo, the workhorse aircraft that will launch SpaceShipTwo into suborbital space. Today in the Mojave desert north of Los Angeles, the space cowboys rolled out the top-secret craft, which will first serve as a flight simulator next month for those lucky pilots who will learn to launch private citizens into space. If all goes well, this mother ship with its 140-foot wingspan will be ready for flight testing at the end of September.
Its space-bound companion, SpaceShipTwo, is the vessel in which the first group of space tourists will ride, first carried to 50,000 feet by WhiteKnightTwo before it blasts into space on its own. SpaceShipTwo is not as flight-ready as the launch aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, with the smaller private-jet-sized six-passenger/two pilot spacecraft said to be 70% complete thus far.
WhiteKnightTwo is packed with innovations, and except for its engines and landing gear, is constructed entirely of carbon fiber composite. Virgin Galactic says the two ships will be ready for their first flight together in late 2009 or early 2010, with the first passengers being Richard Branson and his family. The 2.5-hour space flight will include about five minutes of weightlessness before the tiny ship floats gracefully back to Earth. Not long after that, the era of space tourism (at around $200,000 per passenger) will begin.