by Paula Bustamante
MOJAVE, US - British billionaire Richard Branson unveiled a commercial rocket plane here that will allow tourists a chance to view the Earth and experience weightlessness from suborbital space.
Branson said Monday that he hopes to offer tickets aboard his Virgin Galactic spaceliner for 200,000 dollars each, giving adventurous, well-heeled travellers a chance to experience space for a fraction of the cost of a seat on a NASA shuttle or Russian spaceship.
Branson, who is spending between 250 million and 400 million dollars on the space venture, also said he planned to be on the craft's first passenger flight some 18 months from now, accompanied by his family and the US designer of the space ship, Burt Rutan.
The futuristic-looking craft is composed of two parts - the SpaceShipTwo and the WhiteKnightTwo, the prototype of which has been dubbed Virgin MotherShip Eve in a tribute to Branson's mother.
The craft, emblazoned with the image of a young woman that represents Branson's mother Eve diving through space, resembles two jet aircraft joined together at their wing tips.
The White Knight will transport the two-pilot, six-passenger SpaceShipTwo high above the Earth where the space pod will break away and propel beyond the atmosphere.
SpaceShipTwo "is attached to the mothership in the middle and when the mothership gets up to 60,000 feet, the spaceship will drop away," Branson said.
"They will ignite the rocket and it will go from zero to 2,500 miles per hour in 10 seconds," he told AFP.
Once it has reached suborbital space, SpaceShipTwo passengers will be able to view the Earth from portholes next to their seats, or unbuckle their seatbelts and float in zero gravity.
"This is a very big space ship so you have got a lot of room to float around, lots of windows to look out," Branson said.
"There will be two astronauts at the front, but the six passengers will be astronauts by the time they are finished," he said.
The ship's unusual design allows it to return to Earth like a shuttlecock, decreasing the heat buildup seen in some NASA spaceships. Branson said he had long dreamed of being able to offer space travel.
"I think the idea came when I was sitting watching the moon landing many years ago," he told AFP.
"I know there are literally thousands of people who would love to go to space, to be able to look out the window, to marvel at the beautiful Earth, and through Virgin Galactic we will make it possible."
Virgin Galactic has signed up more than 300 would-be spacefliers, including actress Victoria Principal, who attend the event at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California's Mojave desert.
Others future space tourists at the event included Hollywood director Bryan Singer, environmental theorist James Lovelock, and magazine publisher Silvano Payne.
Even in the economic downturn, demand has been high for tickets aboard the first commercial space ship.
"The interest for flying into space is absolutely huge," said Pamela Hurley-Moser, who owns a Portland, Maine-based travel agency accredited to sell Virgin Galactic tickets.
"The next available option is 45 million dollars with the Russians," she said.
The new technology "is more than just about suborbital space, this is just the infancy of a whole new era in space exploration," said Hurley-Moser.
Interest has remained high even without a firm go date for the first trip.
The White Knight mothership completed a year of "rigorous and successful" first phase flight testing prior to the attachment of SpaceShipTwo and another period of intensive testing will follow.
SpaceShipTwo, which is built from carbon composite materials like the mothership, will be powered by a hybrid rocket motor that is still under development.
But Branson said the unveiling "continues to provide tangible evidence that this ambitious project is not only moving rapidly, but also making tremendous progress towards our goal of safe commercial operation."
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson are to christen SpaceShipTwo with name Virgin Space Ship Enterprise.
New Mexico is building a space port in Upham, New Mexico with a 10,000-foot (three kilometer) runway that is scheduled to be completed by mid-2010.
SpaceShipTwo is a successor to SpaceShipOne, a single-seat suborbital spaceplane also designed by Rutan, which won the 2004 Ansari X-Prize for the first manned private spacecraft.
Rutan made aviation history in 1986 with the Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling.
Branson said that he was proud that Virgin was in the forefront of commercial space travel. "I am sure there will be other people who will compete with us and I am sure that one day we will have a Virgin hotel in space," he said.
"One day we will transport people from Paris to Australia in two hours using similar technology, so I think a lot could come from today's event." --AFP