Final frontier: Crowd sees spaceship launcher fly

Final frontier: Crowd sees spaceship launcher fly (AP)
WhiteKnightTwo follows two photos planes as it circles Monday, July 27, 2009 above the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual AirVenture convention in Oshkosh, Wis. British billionaire Sir Richard Branson hopes to use WhiteKnightTwo to carry a spaceship into the upper atmosphere. The spaceship would then detach and rocket into space. Branson hopes to use the system to create a commercial space travel business. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

(AP) -- Hundreds of earthlings turned their faces to the sky Monday to see an airplane built to launch a ship into space, watching the gleaming white craft soar overhead.

The twin-fuselage craft named WhiteKnightTwo, looking like two planes connected at the wing tips, circled the runway several times before touching down at the Experimental Aircraft Association's Air Venture annual gathering.

It was the first glimpse the public had of the plane, which was made by Virgin Galactic as part of its effort to jump-start commercial space travel. Its designers, engineer Burt Rutan and British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, watched and smiled from the edge of the tarmac.

It was "majestic," said 13-year-old Alura Law of Reddick, Fla.

Her mother, 45-year-old Kim Law, is blind but aimed her camera at the sound of the WhiteKnightTwo. She said it offers hope that scientific experiments in weightlessness might someday restore her sight.

"I'm telling you, (I'm) real hopeful. Inspired," she said.

Virgin Galactic's plan calls for WhiteKnightTwo to lift SpaceShipTwo, a pressurized spacecraft, into the atmosphere from a base in New Mexico. When they reach 50,000 feet, the spaceship would detach and blast into space at four times the speed of sound.

The six passengers would experience about five minutes of weightlessness and get a glimpse of Earth. The spaceship would glide back to Earth much like the . Take-off to landing is expected to take about 2 1/2 hours.

Virgin Galactic doesn't have a launch date yet, but has taken 300 reservations at $200,000 each and is holding $40 million in deposits. Customers include scientist and "Superman Returns" director Bryan Singer, according to Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn.

"Superman Returns" even features a sequence involving two aircraft much like WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. In the movie, Lois Lane boards a launcher jet with a space shuttle-like vehicle attached. The jet lifts the shuttle into the atmosphere, but the plane ends up plunging to Earth and Superman must race to save it.

Virgin Galactic officials say safety will be their "guiding star."

"We not only have to do it safely, we have to give (passengers) a good time," said Virgin Galactic's commercial director, Stephen Attenborough.

The plan came about after Rutan partnered with Virgin Group chairman Branson. Rutan had made history in 2004 when his SpaceShipOne became the first private manned craft to reach space with help from launcher plane WhiteKnightOne. The feat earned him the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

WhiteKnightTwo has now made 16 test flights, Attenborough said. The company will keep testing it until fall, when tests will begin on SpaceShipTwo. Branson himself plans to take the first trip and bring his 92-year-old father and 89-year-old mother with him.

The WhiteKnightTwo, nicknamed "Eve" in honor of Branson's mother, sports a painting of a woman in a space helmet on both fuselages and looks like nothing so much as a gleaming white half of the letter "E."

"Most people never really believed it would be a reality," said Branson. "By just trying these things, new things come out of it."

Matthew Pritzker, a science fiction fan since his youth, has his trip booked. The 27-year-old from Chicago, who runs his own investment firm, is looking forward to being weightless and said he's no more nervous that he would be getting on a roller coaster.

Pritzker said he wants to walk on the moon someday, and SpaceShipTwo marks a step toward that.

"This venture will prove to be a huge, huge turning point in the world of travel," he said. "It means so much to people who grew up looking at the stars."

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Jul 28, 2009
I guess real space exploration will have to take a back seat to this wasteful expense, not to mention further contamination of the planet from this mine's bigger than yours mentality.

Boo !

Walt Disney you've just been one upped.

Jul 28, 2009
Like it or not, this is the future of manned space exploration. Governments are too fickle to spend the money to keep pushing the limits of humanity's reach, but there are plenty of people who will pay a premium to do exactly that.

And it's anything but wasteful. Space tourism is worth billions of dollars, and the research going into making low cost, reliable space vehicles will ultimately open up other new ventures, such as asteroid mining. Only through the power of private industry will we lay the foundation for humanity to finally become a multi-world species.

Jul 29, 2009
I would remind enthusiasts that this is only a sub-orbital space jump. Nevertheless, the craft could be used for science, especially materials science in microgravity.

Jul 29, 2009
It should be pointed out that few of the "established" companies are the ones in existence when an innovation is introduced into an otherwise established industry.

When the train came along, Wells Fargo stage coach company didn't move into trains. Burlington Northern Railroad did not move into Airlines, and Boeing probably won't be the one flying mail, cargo or people through space. It's not just that companies are myopic, it's that they would erode their current business AND that when building a new business model on an innovation, it must be radically different than the current operations of the existing business in terms of revenue, expenses, insurance, marketing and all other business aspects.

Boeing pretty much knows how many planes it can sell and to whom. Virgin Galactic has a much foggier idea of the market size, etc. The risk involved means that existing business and government won't be the major players in the future of space travel.

Jul 29, 2009
I feel that any kind of advance in space travel will have to be driven by the private industry, good for you Sir Richard Branson who's motivation I believe is not just about making more money.. He is a true visionary

Aug 03, 2009
Think back to hale, and his enormous efforts to secure funding for the 100 inch and the 200 inch telescopes. To say that his efforts at securing funing/finding investors were enormous would be an understatement. NOBODY was willing to partake in Hale`s aspirations(enormous funding was required!)... NOBODY else could see the universe through his eyes, and NOBODY else at the time could envision what astronomy would be like 50 years in the future.... yet he managed to finally secure the finaning required to build the two telescopes... engineering feats of massive proportions! Had he not built the telescopes, Hubble would have not been able to make his great discoveries which set in motion our understanding of the universe!

To all the naysayers who think the $$ should rether be invested in farming equipment, please re-evaluate your position.

Richard Branson, if he succeeds with his feat, will forever be remembered as the private spaceflight pioneer.... and that is no cinch!

Aug 03, 2009
This short documentary on the 200 inch telescope is so inspirational! i`ve seen it a few months ago i thought i would share with you.


I watched the full documentary and it was just amazing!

Aug 03, 2009
after some quick searching i`ve located the full documentary. Enjoy, ad tell us what u think :)

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