Billionaire Richard Branson yesterday unveiled the first commercial passenger spaceship, a sleek black-and-white vessel that represents an expensive gamble on creating a commercial space-tourism industry.
Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Branson's Virgin Atlantic Airways, hopes the winged, minivan-sized SpaceShipTwo will rocket tourists into zero gravity beginning in two or three years. "This will be the start of commercial space travel," Branson said at the launch in California's Mojave Desert. "You become an astronaut."
The project, with a US$450 million ($630 million) budget, would see the construction of six commercial spaceships that would take passengers high enough to achieve weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth set against the backdrop of space.
Eventually, Virgin Galactic may offer sub-orbital travel that could dramatically cut the length of flights.
"Subject to American government permission, we may well start developing a programme to try to take people from continent to continent, you know, two hours from Los Angeles to Australia," Branson said.
"Can't promise that we're going to be able to do it, but if you don't try things you don't succeed."
Other potential business ventures include flying scientists and experiments and launching small payloads into space.
Branson hired aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites to build the commercial spaceship fleet after a Rutan prototype named SpaceShipOne won the US$10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 for the first private piloted spaceflight.
Branson told Reuters the flights would be safer than Nasa's space shuttle. "I think because it's so much younger, it's just that much safer than what Nasa has done using old technology which is 50, 60 years old," he said. "We can put people into space for less carbon output than say, a flight from New York to LA and back."
* Weightless jaunt
A twin-hulled aircraft named Eve will carry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of about 18,300m before releasing it.
The spaceship would then fire its onboard rocket engines, climbing to about 104km above Earth.
The trip would take about 2 hours, with passengers experiencing about five minutes of weightlessness.
Three hundred aspiring astronauts have put down deposits for the US$200,000 ($280,000) ride, which includes three days of training.