December 8, 2009—Aspiring space tourists got a first look at their future ride late Monday, when Virgin Galactic unveiled the first of its long-awaited SpaceShipTwo planes (pictured with wings folded upward, suspended from the middle of its twin-fuselage launch vehicle).
After years of teases, the world's only commercial spacecraft rolled out onto the tarmac at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. There, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson christened the Virgin Galactic craft with the customary smashing of champagne bottles.
(See pictures of the futuristic New Mexico spaceport intended as a hub for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo planes.)
Virgin Galactic leader Sir Richard Branson's daughter, Holly, announced the first SpaceShipTwo plane's name: 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, he said.
"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 was 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 ticket holder Adrian Reynard—an Indy-car designer, vehicle-engineering consultant, and in a joint venture with Branson's Virgin Atlantic airline, a supplier to airliner builders—called Enterprise an "awesome sight."
"The first thing that strikes you is its size," Reynard said. "It's far bigger than SpaceShipOne. This is a massive vehicle, and I can fully understand how [six passengers] will be able to float around in the cabin area."
Reynard added that the space plane is "aerodynamically beautiful."
"I know you can't always say that if it looks right, it's going to fly right, but I can see that there's been a lot of development put into the shape," he said.
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."
Roger Launius is a spaceflight historian at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Launius said he's less concerned about the safety of Virgin Galactic's space plane than he is about the company's ability to make money off its suborbital venture.
"I hope they succeed, but I'm not sure they'll be able to," Launius said.
"The problem is, what's the market? There is a community of very wealthy adventurers who want to do this, but how large is it?"
If too few people decide to book a ticket, the V.S.S. Enterprise could end up being for Branson what the supersonic Concord jet was to British Airways and Air France in the 1970s, Luanius said.
"The Concord was never commercially viable. They flew it for almost 30 years as a money-loss operation," he said.
"Sir Richard might conceivably want to do the same thing."