for National Geographic News
Aspiring space tourists will get a glimpse of their future ride late Monday, when Virgin Galactic takes the wraps off the first of its long-awaited SpaceShipTwo planes.
The first SpaceShipTwo plane will be christened the V.S.S. Enterprise, short for Virgin Space Ship Enterprise, said Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn.
Virgin Galactic chose "Enterprise" for its long tradition in maritime and aviation history.
"It was the name of the first [NASA] space shuttle, and it has dominated science fiction as a kind of watchword for human spaceflight in the future," Whitehorn said.
Virgin Galactic Holds a Wedding
V.S.S. Enterprise is based on SpaceShipOne, a reusable manned spacecraft designed by aviation designer Burt Rutan, which won the U.S. $10-million Ansari X Prize in 2004. (Related: fast facts on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne.)
Whitehorn said the Enterprise had recently been "married" to EVE, the twin-fuselage mother ship that will ferry it to launch altitude, about 50,000 feet (15,200 meters)—the space shuttle, by contrast, separates from its booster rockets at about 150,000 feet (45,700 meters). (See pictures of Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson unveiling EVE last year.)
Enterprise is the first of five planned SpaceShipTwo planes. It measures 60 feet (18 meters) long and is intended to carry two pilots and six passengers, who will pay handsomely for two-and-a-half-hour flights into suborbital space, where they'll experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth.
Monday's unveiling will be attended by some of the 300 or so potential passengers who have already put down at least a deposit on a U.S. $200,000 Virgin Galactic ticket.
"We've all been patiently waiting to see exactly what the vehicle is going to look like," Virgin Galactic ticket holder Peter Cheney of Seattle said in a statement. "It would be nice to see it in the flesh."
Virgin Galactic in a "Race With Safety"
In the coming months Enterprise will undergo a battery of ground and flight tests designed to test the craft's safety.
The exact date of the first suborbital passenger flight has not been set yet but is expected to occur sometime in 2011.
"We're looking at a test program that will stretch for at least 18 months," Whitehorn said.
"This is a unique project and we're not in a race with anyone. We're only in a race with safety."
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