Within a few years a handful of rich tourists may be blasting into space in a craft that combines the aesthetics of the space shuttle and a corporate jet.
British billionaire Richard Branson and aerospace designer Burt Rutan unveiled a model Wednesday of SpaceShipTwo, the vehicle they hope will take passengers on suborbital joy rides.
"Breathtakingly beautiful," was Branson's assessment of the ship, which is now under construction at a hangar in the Mojave Desert and which may begin test flights as soon as this year.
(Related photos: "New Mexico Spaceport Designs Unveiled" [September 10, 2007].)
Speaking to reporters at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Branson and Rutan also showed off a model of the four-engine jet that will help launch the craft into space.
The twin-fuselage airplane, called the White Knight Two, will carry SpaceShipTwo high into the sky beneath a single 140-foot (43-meter) wing.
The spacecraft will then separate from the plane and rocket into suborbital space, where as many as six passengers and two crew members could unbuckle themselves and experience weightlessness and an unparalleled view before gliding back to Earth.
Passengers would get about 4.5 minutes of zero-gravity time, floating in a ship roughly the size of a Falcon 900 executive jet, before returning to their seats.
Will Whitehorn, president of Branson's space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, insisted the project is on course.
Construction on the White Knight Two is already more than 70 percent complete, he said. SpaceShipTwo is about 60 percent complete, and the company and Rutan's aerospace outfit, Scaled Composites, hope to begin test flights this summer.
About 200 prospective passengers from 30 countries have made reservations, shelling out $200,000 (U.S.) apiece. Many were in attendance for Wednesday's presentation, including Ken Baxter, 58, of Las Vegas.