Virgin Galactic in space. Note the vertical position of the wings.

Mated to the Mothership: just prior to launch.
Tourism flights booking now; first takeoff in mid-2009

Virgin Galactic, the spaceflight division of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, formally unveiled its first spacecraft in New York City today. The ship, named SpaceShipTwo, is nearing the final phases of construction by Scaled Composites.

Today's announcement was bittersweet.  In June, the aircraft will begin is mandated 50 test flights before carrying a single passenger.  But this incredible success is not without its price: one of SpaceShipTwo's engines killed three Scaled Composites employees during a test last July.  Branson and Scaled Composites would not comment if the explosion delayed the project.

Safety is paramount at Virgin Galactic.  Branson claimed ex-Trekker William Shatner was scheduled as one of the first to fly on SpaceShipTwo, though Shatner then publicly made the claim, "I do want to go up, but I need guarantees I'll definitely come back."

The risks of spaceflight have not deterred others.  Virgin Galactic claims up to 200 people have already booked seats on the sub-orbital craft through 2009. Though the initial ticket price is $200,000, a British businessman named Alan Watts was able to redeem two million frequent flier miles for a 2009 flight.  Branson promised that after the first 100 passengers, the deposit cost will dip to $100,000 for the next 400 passengers. 

Eventually, Branson hopes to bring suborbital flight to as low as $20,000 per person. 

The ship will reach a maximum altitude of 68 miles, just exceeding the formal boundary of space. Total time for each flight is projected to be in the 2.5 hour range, which includes six minutes of weightlessness at the peak of the suborbital phase.

The spacecraft will fold its wings up for reentry into atmosphere, then fold them back again immediately before landing.

Launches will occur from underneath a mother ship known as WhiteKnightTwo, also unveiled in New York today.  All flights will originate from Upham, New Mexico.

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