The space tourism race marked a milestone yesterday as British mogul Sir Richard Branson and U.S. aerospace designer Burt Rutan waved to a crowd from inside the cabin of an exotic jet that will carry a passenger space ship to launch altitude.
The scene was the public unveiling of the White Knight Two mother ship before a crowd of engineers, dignitaries and space enthusiasts at the Mojave Air & Space Port in the high desert north of Los Angeles.
The four-engine jet, with its 140-foot single wing, is an engineering marvel. The space between its twin fuselages is where SpaceShipTwo, the passenger rocket being built for Branson's Virgin Galactic, will be mounted.
White Knight Two, billed as the world's largest all-carbon-composite airplane, is "one of the most beautiful and extraordinary aviation vehicles ever developed," Branson proclaimed.
White Knight Two is the brainchild of Mr. Rutan, who made history in 2004 when his SpaceShipOne became the first private, manned craft to reach space. SpaceShipOne accomplished it with help from White Knight Two's smaller predecessor, White Knight. After winning $10-million (U.S.) for the feat, Mr. Rutan partnered with Mr. Branson, chairman of Virgin Group, to commercialize the prototype.
White Knight Two's long-awaited rollout, a year after a deadly explosion rocked Mr. Rutan's test site - three technicians were killed in an explosion while testing SpaceShipTwo's propellant system - is the first tangible sign of progress toward making space tourism a reality. Despite the glitz surrounding the event, significant hurdles remain.
The aircraft must undergo at least a year of rigorous flight tests starting in the fall. In addition, workers have to finish building SpaceShipTwo.
Matthew Upchurch, 46, who reserved a future flight, said he felt goose bumps when he saw White Knight Two.
"It was very emotional for me," he said. "I thought, 'Oh my God, we're getting closer.' "
The mother ship rollout also moved Mr. Rutan, who has made a career of designing unconventional aircraft.
"Even though this is a pretty weird airplane, we all expect it to fly very well," Mr. Rutan said.
Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo, which is 70-per-cent complete, remained under wraps. It sat in a hangar several hundred feet away from White Knight Two shrouded in a black tarp. A sticker on it read: "Coming soon ... to a spaceport near you."
Virgin Galactic named White Knight Two after Mr. Branson's mother, Eve. After the rollout, Mr. Branson and his mother popped open a bottle of Champagne next to the craft.
Virgin Galactic envisages a future where space voyages will become as common as airplane travel. It wants to fly 500 people into space in the first year for $200,000 a head.
So far, more than 250 wannabe astronauts have paid the full amount or put down a deposit to fly with Virgin Galactic, but when they will float in zero gravity is unknown. Virgin Galactic stopped predicting after it said in a 2004 press release that flights could begin in 2007.