Virgin unveils SpaceShipTwo

December 8, 2009

SpaceShipTwo SpaceShipTwo at its unveiling in Mojave, Calif. The spaceship is designed for suborbital space tourism flights. Photo credit: Jack Brockway

The spacecraft that may be the vehicle for the first commercial “spaceline” for suborbital space tourism flights was unveiled Dec. 7 in Mojave, Calif.

SpaceShipTwo is the sequel to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne, which completed the world’s first manned private space flights in 2004. The spacecraft was unveiled with its mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, at sundown at Mojave Air and Spaceport. Like its predecessor, it is designed by a team at Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, and features carbon composite construction, but it is about twice the size of SpaceShipOne and is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots.

Rutan and Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson were on hand for the unveiling of the spacecraft, which Virgin says has been designed to take many thousands of private astronauts into space. The joint venture between Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites has a goal of launching daily space tourism flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico—for tourists able to shell out $200,000 per flight.

“The unveil of SS2 takes the Virgin Galactic vision to the next level and continues to provide tangible evidence that this ambitious project is not only moving rapidly, but also making tremendous progress towards our goal of safe commercial operation,” Branson said in a press release.

After a test program is completed, Virgin Galactic plans to start commercial flights with SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo, which was unveiled in 2008 and has been undergoing testing. WhiteKnightTwo, the largest all-composite aircraft ever built, will carry the spaceship to above 50,000 feet powered by four Pratt & Whitney PW308A engines. SpaceShipTwo will then detach and fire its hybrid rocket motor, currently under development, and launch into space, according to the company.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson christened SpaceShipTwo with the name Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Enterprise. The WhiteKnightTwo at the unveiling is named Virgin Mothership (VMS) Eve, after Branson’s mother.