Branson unveils space dream

24-01-2008

Branson unveils space dream
Sir Richard Branson has billed 2008 the "year of the spaceship" after revealing the designs of Virgin's new space launch system.

Based on the design of SpaceShipOne, which successfully went into space on three occasions, the new ship, SpaceShipTwo, will begin flight testing this year.

The Virgin Group chief hopes that the latest addition to the fleet will soon be able to take civilian passengers into space under the Virgin Galactic banner, at a current cost of $200,000 (£100,000) per passenger.

Virgin says it already has more than 200 people signed up for the trip, stumping up deposits of $30 million (£15 million), while another 85,000 have registered their interest in the scheme.

As well as unveiling the replica model of SpaceShipTwo, Sir Richard and renowned aviator Burt Rutan also revealed the plans for the White Knight Two (WK2) mothership.

The carrier aircraft will be the world's largest carbon composite aircraft and is said to be "very close to completion" in Mojave, California. Test flights are expected in the summer of 2008.

Speaking at the New York launch of the replicas, Sir Richard said the move towards civilian space travel would help broaden horizons about the world we live in.

"If our new system could carry only people into space, that would be enough for me, because of the transforming effect it will have on the thousands who will travel with us," he said.

"It is quite clear from every astronaut that I've ever spoken to - including Brian Binnie and Mike Melvill - that seeing the planet from out there, surrounded by the incredibly thin protective layer of atmosphere, helps one to wake up to the fragility of the small portion of the planet’s mass that we inhabit, and to the importance of protecting the Earth."

He added: "Our population is now heading to nine billion people by the middle of this century – that's three times more than when I was born.

"With the end of the oil era approaching, and climate change progressing faster than most models have been predicting, the utilisation of space is essential not only for communications but also for the logistics of survival through things such as weather satellites, agricultural monitoring, GPS and climate science."

Virgin Galactic says that, while its first priority is in developing the market for human spaceflight, it is "already assessing the potential for unmanned launch capability".

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