July 28, 2008 / 7:59 PM / 10 years ago

Branson unveils plane to launch spaceship

MOJAVE, California (Reuters) - Entrepreneur Richard Branson on Monday unveiled the plane intended as the launch aircraft for a Virgin Galactic spaceship full of paying passengers.

Virgin Group's Founder billionaire Richard Branson (L) and Burt Rutan, president of Scaled Composites, take questions from the media as they sit in front of Virgin Galactic's mothership WhiteKnightTwo during its public roll-out in Mojave, California July 28, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

The WhiteKnightTwo was displayed for a small group of reporters and invited guests at the California desert headquarters of Scaled Composites, the aerospace firm where it was built.

WhiteKnightTwo, nicknamed “Eve” after Branson’s mother, was designed as a high-altitude aircraft that will launch SpaceShipTwo from midair.

It sports twin fuselages and a 140-foot (43-metre) wingspan and will carry SpaceShipTwo under the centre of its wing, between the two hulls. The plan is for the aircraft to free the spacecraft at about 50,000 feet (15,240 metres), from where it will rocket into space.

Virgin Galactic, part of Branson’s airline, vacation and retail company Virgin Group, hopes to send its first paying customers into space for $200,000 (100,300 pounds) each within two years.

Branson said 200 people signed up for the ultimate sightseeing trip and that he expected the ticket price to drop significantly over the next five years.

Among the passengers expected to make the first trip are physicist Stephen Hawking, actress Victoria Principal and designer Philippe Starck.

Virgin Galactic is one of several contenders in the new commercial space race.

Others include Europe’s EADS Astrium; Blue Origin, started by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos; Space Exploration Technologies (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.

Additional reporting Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney

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