By Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) - Within a few years, a handful of rich tourists may be blasting into space in a craft that looks a little like a cross between the space shuttle and a corporate jet.
British billionaire Richard Branson and the aerospace designer Burt Rutan unveiled a model Wednesday of SpaceShipTwo, the vehicle they hope will be able to take passengers on suborbital joy rides, sheerly for the fun of it, with test flights beginning as soon as this year.
"Breathtakingly beautiful," was Branson's assessment of the ship, which is now under construction at a hangar in the Mojave Desert.
Speaking to reporters at the American Museum of Natural History, the pair also showed off a model of the big, 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 wing.
The spacecraft would 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 4½ minutes of zero-gravity time, floating about 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 no pipe dream; construction on the White Knight Two is already more than 70 percent complete. 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 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, and hopes to be in space in a year.
"Yeah, I'm scared," he acknowledged. "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 are safe.
Questions about their safety were highlighted last July, when the spacecraft's engine exploded during a routine ground test.
Three people died in the accident. California occupational safety inspectors fined Scaled Composites $25,870. Investigators and the company's engineers 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 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 ultra-light 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 a $10 million 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 looked remarkably like something Flash Gordon would have flown.