Branson/Rutan Spacecraft Makes Public Debut

SpaceShipTwo, designed by Burt Rutan and bankrolled by Sir Richard Branson, made its first public appearance last week. Rutan's prototype SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004 as the first privately operated aircraft to reach space, then repeat the feat within two weeks.

Branson and Rutan hope to launch their commercial space tourism program as early as 2011, with Branson (and his family) joining Rutan on the passenger manifest for the first flight. Their joint enterprise, Virgin Galactic, was founded by Branson who said, "We want this program to be a whole new beginning in a commercial era of space travel."

SpaceShipTwo is designed to be carried to 51,000 feet by its mother ship, then launched to attain a final altitude of 65 miles above the Earth's surface. The rocket fuel is a combination of nitrous oxide and a rubber-based solid fuel. Each flight is to last about 2.5 hours, including about five minutes of zero-gravity. SpaceShipTwo accommodates up to six passengers and two pilots. Tickets are priced at $200,000, and Virgin Galactic reports it has sold around 300.

Eventually, Branson expects to build a fleet of five commercial spacecraft at a cost of more than $400 million. Branson said, "NASA spent billions upon billions of dollars on space travel and has only managed to send 480 people. We're literally hoping to send thousands of people into space over the next couple of years. We want to make sure that we build a spaceship that is 100 percent safe."