Virgin’s Branson Presents New Space Ship

NEW YORK ~ British tycoon Richard Branson unveiled his newest spaceship this week and said that test flights for the vessel would begin this year.

Branson, who has ambitious plans to begin carrying tourists on short flights into space by 2010, revealed models and photographs of the newest version of SpaceShipTwo and also the twin-fuselage WhiteKnightTwo, which will ferry SpaceShipTwo into the atmosphere for a midair launch.

Construction of the two should be completed by this year.

“2008 is really going to be the year of the spaceship,” Branson, president of the Virgin Atlantic airline and a key backer of the private space flight effort, told a press conference on Wednesday.

“The designs of both the mothership and the new spaceship are absolutely beautiful and surpass any expectations for the future of commercial spaceflight that we had when first registering the name Virgin Galactic in 1999,” he said.

The two vessels are being built by Scaled Composites, an aircraft builder in Mojave, California, with plans to provide paying customers flights into suborbital space some 110 kilometers above the earth.

Branson said more than 200 passengers had confirmed their plans for the flight, which will cost US$200,000 each, and that some 85,000 had expressed interest.

With its numerous round windows providing views on all sides, SpaceShipTwo will carry two crew and six passengers, who will experience five minutes of zero gravity once in space.

The first flight is expected in 2009.

Natasha Pavlovich, a native of Yugoslavia and member of the 100 “founders” selected for the earliest flights, said she was crossing her fingers to be on the first tourist flight, due in 2010.

“I will become the first astronaut from former Yugoslavia,” she said. “I want to see with my own eyes God’s creation.”

Luxembourg businessman Jean Ries said he was among the very first to sign up and back the project.

“I am a private pilot, and for a pilot to go into space is the ultimate goal.”

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