Tourist Spaceship Design Unveiled
David B. Caruso in New York
|January 24, 2008|
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.
"You can't even imagine my excitement," said Baxter after seeing the models. Baxter, a real estate marketing executive, said he recently completed preflight training that included being subjected to extreme g-forces in a whirling centrifuge. He hopes to be in space in a year.
"Yeah, I'm scared," he said. "But this is about realizing a childhood dream. Space travel is something I've been thinking about since I read Jules Verne as a kid."
The primary job for the designers will be confirming that the pair of experimental vehicles is safe.
The issue was highlighted last July, when the spacecraft's engine exploded during a routine ground test. Three people died in the accident, and California occupational safety inspectors fined Scaled Composites $25,870.
Investigators and the company's engineers say they are still trying to figure out exactly what went wrong.
"We don't know yet exactly what caused it," Rutan said. He added that there was "no question" that the accident is causing a delay in the engine's development, but did not comment on whether that would disrupt plans for test flights.
Rutan acknowledged that the project has risks, but said that when the spacecraft starts flying paying passengers, it will be at least as safe as the early airlines were in the 1920s.
That era was not a particularly safe time for air travel, by modern standards, but Rutan said it would be "hundreds of times safer" than government-funded space flight has been to date.
Branson said he has already reserved seats on one of the early flights for his elderly mother and father.
The pair and other Scaled Composites engineers attending Wednesday's news conference said they would keep many of the technical details of their launching system secret, but they offered a few facts about the craft.
White Knight Two will have about the same wingspan of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, but, in contrast to the World War II bomber, both it and SpaceShipTwo are being built entirely from ultralight composite materials.
Virgin Galactic showed video of workers lifting big sections of the spacecraft with little effort, as if they were made of light plastic.
The spacecraft looks decidedly different from its predecessor, SpaceShipOne, which earned Rutan's team the $10-million-U.S. dollar Ansari X prize in 2004 by becoming the first privately built, manned rocket ship to fly into space twice in a span of two weeks.
SpaceShipOne was smaller, with just three seats, and a more science-fiction-like design.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is much larger and incorporates notable design changes, including the relocation of its wings from the top to the bottom of its fuselage.
Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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