Space tourism for the masses came a step closer this week after Virgin Galactic’s mothership completed a vital test flight. WhiteKnightTwo, the launch vehicle for SpaceShipTwo, spent two and a half hours in the air – reaching a height of 18,000ft over the Mojave desert in California.
Named Eve, after Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson’s mother, the twin-hulled craft made its third flight – its longest and fastest flight yet, on Wednesday.
Celebrating the test yesterday, adventurer Sir Richard revealed he will fly aboard Eve himself within weeks.
WhiteKnightTwo will eventually fly to a ceiling of 50,0000 ft, to launch the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo carrying six passengers paying $200,000 a time on a two-hour flight into space.
That may sound a lot, but currently only tycoons spending $20million can fly into space aboard conventional Russian spacecraft, including Charles Simonyi who is in orbit this week on his second trip.
Early Virgin astronauts are said to include wheelchair-bound science genius Stephen Hawking and Princess Beatrice. But William Shatner – Captain Kirk in Star Trek – said he had turned a flight down.
The first commercial flights are expected within two years and will aim to fly 500 people in the first year from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Later flights will be made from Kiruna in Sweden and possibly Lossiemouth, Scotland.
Sir Richard said: “This is a very proud day for us all! These first flights of WK2 take the Virgin Galactic vision up another level and continue to provide tangible evidence that this most ambitious of projects is not only for real but is making tremendous progress towards our goal of safe commercial operation.
“I am looking forward to flying myself in Eve in the next few weeks before we attach SpaceShipTwo later in the year and begin test flights to space shortly afterwards!”
Virgin Galactic also plan to use WhiteKnightTwo, a revolutionary craft built by Burt Rutan’s company Scaled Composites, to launch satellites into space commercially.
Picture: WhiteKnightTwo soars above the Mojave Desert in a maiden flight test. (Photo: Virgin Galactic).
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