Virgin Galactic Unveils Its New Space Tourism Rocket

By Eliza Strickland | July 28, 2008 3:58 pm

Virgin Galactic WhiteKnight TwoAt an aircraft hangar deep in the Mojave Desert this morning, the space tourism company Virgin Galactic unveiled one of the crafts that will boost paying customers up to the edge of space. Called the “WhiteKnight Two” by British tycoon Richard Branson, the vehicle will act as a mothership by flying to 48,000 feet with a smaller spacecraft slung between its twin fuselages. Then the spacecraft, SpaceShip Two, will detach and fire its rocket engines to take the six passengers the rest of the way up.

A crowd of engineers, dignitaries and space enthusiasts gathered inside a Mojave Desert hangar for the unveiling countdown. As the hangar door flew open, White Knight Two appeared outside under the sunny desert sky with Branson and American aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan waving from the cabin. White Knight Two, billed as the world’s largest all-carbon-composite aircraft, is “one of the most beautiful and extraordinary aviation vehicles ever developed,” Branson said [AP].

While SpaceShip Two is not yet complete, Branson said he hopes to begin test flights of the conjoined crafts in late 2009, with commercial flights possibly beginning in 2010. Would-be astronauts must pay $200,000 (£100,000) to guarantee a space flight, which will propel passengers into the atmosphere for two-and-a-half hours, experiencing around five minutes of weightlessness [Telegraph]. That high price tag hasn’t been a deterrent to some dedicated explorers; Branson said today that 270 people have made reservations so far.

The rollout came a year after a deadly accident that killed three engineers and set back the effort to launch the first commercial spaceflight [Los Angeles Times]. But Branson has emphasized the safety of the vehicles, and said that his nearest and dearest will happily test them out; he said that he and members of his family would be among the first wave of space travelers, and admitted he expected to be nervous at take-off. “I’m going up myself, and I’m sure my stomach is going to turn, my children, my parents are going up,” Branson said [AFP], adding that his 92-year-old father is expected to be part of that trip.

For more on Virgin Galactic, read DISCOVER’s coverage of its environmentally friendly spaceport, and an interview with spacecraft design wizard Burt Rutan.

Image: Virgin Galactic

  • Stanley Spencer

    Hello to whom it concerns,
    My name is Stanley Spencer. I have always since I was in 1st grade been amazed by space and space flight. I am not a millionair and dont know if i would ever become a millionair. My age today is 34yrs old . My annual income is about 25,000 . I understand that Virgin Galactic is a private company and can charge what they want, but for middle class people or even poor people this kind of price to take individuals to the edge of space is way above what we earn yr. The price you are charging is only for the rich. Is your price for this short flight set up only for the rich because obvously someone that is interested in space like myself could not and never be able to take one of your trips. Seems almost discrimation toward the us american citizan if he/she is not in the wealthy class or just flat out rich and could spare 200,000 out of back pocket. Sorta unfair for the average citizan that would love to be able to experiance what the land of the free has provide virgin glalctic to be able to provide for american citizans. But remember your price is only for the rich. What about us!.Has the wealth of america blinded this corpation to forget that not only the rich would like to experiance this but also middle and lower class people. Hope you would look at this and just think about it and give it some thought.

    Thank you

    Stanley Spencer

  • Walter R. Johnson

    TO: Stanley Spencer

    It’s true that $200,000 is a high price. However, you forget one thing – the price will eventually come down. It has happened before. When commercial air service was first getting off the ground (no pun intended) in the ’20s and ’30s, air travel was considered to be a rich man’s lark. However, as technology advanced, air travel became cheaper, thus allowing more people to fly. As the customer base increased and competition between airlines became sharper, prices were driven further down. The same thing will undoubtedly happen with space flight, assuming that the government and/or so-called “environmentalists” don’t ban non-governmental space flight entirely (not likely, but posssible).

    The thing is, you will probably be alive long enough to eventually be able to purchase a ticket. Since I’m 30 years older than you, I probably won’t.

  • Janice

    Dear Stanley,
    I’ll likely never be able to afford to fly to Egypt and ride a camel across the Sahara; go to Africa on a safari; join a deep sea exploration dive on a submarine; go on a round the world cruise, nor will I likely ever be able to afford to go into space (frankly, I’ve got other things I’d rather do with my money, anyway).
    If you are interested in space, perhaps you could learn everything you can about it, daydream, or go back to school and become an engineer in the aerospace field. If none of these appeal to you, perhaps you could invest your children with an appreciation for space and exploration. Perhaps one of them will be able to go into space, some day.
    I don’t blame the cruise ships for my inability to afford to take a cruise, and I certainly don’t begrudge those who can afford to do so. If I got angry at people for driving a more expensive car than mine, I’d be a very angry person, indeed.
    Walter is correct when he he says “the price will eventually come down”. However, the costs involved in building the technology and harnessing the resources (materials, engineers, testing facilities) means the initial costs must be this high.


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