NEW YORK (Reuters) - Entrepreneur Richard Branson on Wednesday unveiled a model of the spaceship he hopes will be the first to take paying passengers into space on a regular basis as soon as next year.
Branson, whose Virgin Galactic is charging $200,000 for a short trip into space, said his SpaceShipTwo will start test flights later this year.
“We really do want to have a situation where hundreds of thousands of people who want to experience space travel are able to do so,” said Branson at a media event at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.
“Even though the dollar isn’t worth much anymore, $200,000 is still too expensive for the majority of people,” he said. “Within five years of launching, I would hope the price would come down fairly dramatically.”
Virgin Galactic (http://www.virgingalactic.com), part of Branson’s airline, vacation and retail company Virgin Group, now has more than 200 people signed up for the ultimate sightseeing trip, stumping up more than $30 million in deposits.
Passengers getting ready for the two-hour trip include physicist Stephen Hawking, former soap star Victoria Principal and designer Philippe Starck.
About 100 of Virgin’s reserved passengers attended Wednesday’s unveiling, to get the first glimpse of the spacecraft’s design.
“It’s like something out of Thunderbirds,” said Trevor Beattie, a British advertising executive, referring to the 1960s TV series. “It’s what we as kids in the 1960s thought the future would be like.”
Beattie, who co-runs the Beattie McGuinness Bungay advertising firm in London, said he bought the flight instead of splurging on a Ferrari, as he can’t drive.
Richard “B.J.” Bjorklund, a portfolio manager for Citigroup’s Smith Barney unit in Dallas, said the trip would be his only chance of experiencing space travel after failing to get into the U.S. Air Force’s astronaut program years ago.
“I figured I would never have a chance to go into space again,” said Bjorklund. “I’m thinking somewhere toward the end of 2009 (for launch). But I want them to be safe so I’m ready to go whenever they say it’s time to go.”
The space trips, from a launching pad to be built in New Mexico, should take about two and a half hours, including five minutes of weightlessness. They will be suborbital, meaning the spacecraft goes just beyond 62 miles above sea level — the technical boundary of space — then glides back to land where it took off without orbiting the Earth.
SpaceShipTwo, and its launch aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, also unveiled on Wednesday, were designed by Burt Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne collected the Ansari X Prize for privately funded space flight in 2004.
The main spacecraft, made entirely of carbon composite materials, will be about 60 feet long, with large, movable feather-shaped vertical fins at the back, which will make reentry into the earth’s atmosphere safer, Rutan said. The ship, which will carry six passengers and two pilots, is 60 percent complete, Virgin said.
The spaceship, dubbed “Eve” after Branson’s mother, will have a cabin about the size of a big business jet’s cabin but with more headroom, Rutan said. It will have 18-inch-diameter windows on every side for better views of the Earth.
The launch plane, WhiteKnightTwo, will be a two-fuselage aircraft with a wingspan of about 140 feet which will carry SpaceShipTwo under the center of its wing, between the two hulls. The plan is for the aircraft to free the spaceship at around 50,000 feet, from where it will rocket upward into space.
WhiteKnightTwo, to be powered by four Pratt & Whitney Canada PW308 engines, is more than 80 percent complete, Virgin said. Pratt & Whitney Canada is a unit of United Technologies Corp.
Virgin Galactic is only one of several high-profile contenders in the new commercial space race. Others include Europe’s EADS Astrium; Blue Origin, started by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos; Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX), created by PayPal founder Elon Musk; Rocketplane Kistler; and Bigelow Aerospace, a venture aimed at creating space hotels, started by hotelier Robert Bigelow.
The leader in the budding sector is Space Adventures of Vienna, Virginia, which started the space tourism phenomenon in 2001 when it put U.S. businessman Dennis Tito on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft headed for the International Space Station for a reported $20 million. It has since sent another four paying passengers into space the same way.
Editing by Phil Berlowitz