Virgin boss’s space tribute to mum

Sir Richard Branson unveiled the craft that will carry his passengers into space this week – and showed his soft side by decorating it with a picture of his mum.

SpaceShipTwoEvery SpaceShipTwo will carry the logo of a busty beauty called Galactic Girl – a figure that the designers based on Eve Branson who was an air hostess in the pioneering days of air travel.

The Virgin Galactic spacecraft will be launched from a runway by a jet-powered mothership called White Knight Two – and the first of those will be called Eve in a further tribute by Sir Richard.

Skymania News flew to New York for a dazzling press event that showed off the fleet being built for Virgin Galactic by Scaled Composites, winners of the Ansari X Prize for the first private, manned spaceflight.

Eve, 83, who is booked with Sir Richard’s father Ted, 89, on one of the first flights, was clearly delighted by the dedication – and revealed that her son had checked she would not mind first. She said: “It is very fitting as I see myself as the mothership. Richard rang me first to ask my permission!”

Eve admitted she was surprised by the saucy logo. But she added: “It is all in the spirit of things and harks back to the early days of flying. I was one of the first air hostesses back in the Thirties when it took two weeks to get from England to South America.”

Sir Richard’s new “airway to heaven” will carry the first ordinary space tourists to the final frontier. More than 200 wannabe astronauts have already put down deposits to join the new 65 Mile High Club. Another 85,000 people from 125 countries have registered an interest.

Each ticket to ride will cost £100,000 for flights in which six passengers at a time will experience many minutes of weightlessness on a sub-orbital flight to the edge of space. They will experience to see the curvature of the Earth and incredible views of the continents stretching for thousands of miles before gliding to a landing on Earth.

Galactic Girl logoSir Richard has placed an order for five Galactic Girls and has options on a further seven. He has also ordered two White Knight Two motherships to send them soaring high above the atmosphere.

Virgin Galactic Chairman Will Whitehorn said the White Knight will be ready for tests in around ten weeks and the first Galactic Girl by the summer. They will then undergo many months or testing before carrying paassengers.

A model revealing the design of the new launch mothership came as a big surprise yesterday. White Knight Two has a twin-fuselage and will powered by four jet engines.

It will take off from a conventional runway and carry the spacecraft between its twin hulls high into the atmosphere. There Galactic Girl will break free and fire its own rocket engine to propel it into space before it returns to land.

Mr Whitehorn said that as well as the pilots, the ship would be able to carry relatives of the astronauts who could wave them off on their adventures.

Space tourism has previously been restricted to a tiny handful of the mega-rich who have paid £10 million each to fly on conventional Russian Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station.

Although many small companies are talking about space tourism, Virgin Galactic are the only one that has made any significant progress. A flight expert told me: “They are really the only show in town.”

A custom-built space port is being set up in New Mexico and plans are being made for flight from other parts of the world too, including Sweden and Lossiemouth in Scotland for trips into the spectacular Northern Lights.

The spacecraft are being built by fledgling company Scaled Composites and work is pressing ahead despite an explosion that killed killed three of its workers during ground tests in California last July. The company, founded by rocket pioneer Burt Rutan, was fined $25,870 last week for safety violations.

Pictures: Virgin Galactic.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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