By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
MOJAVE, Calif., July 28 -- British entrepreneur and adventurer Richard Branson on Monday took the wraps off an aircraft that, for $200,000 a seat, may someday take tourists who can afford it on the first leg of regular, albeit very brief, commercial flights into space.
Amid extravagantly orchestrated publicity at a historic test airfield near Edwards Air Force Base, Branson unveiled the double-hulled "mother ship" built to carry a capsule filled with six wealthy tourists high into the stratosphere, from where the smaller ship would rocket into the blackness more than 60 miles above Earth.
The dual-fuselage, all-composite plane expands and refines the smaller version that famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan twice used four years ago to begin the journey of a piloted capsule to sub-orbital altitude, winning the X-Prize competition aimed at encouraging private spaceflight.
No one knows when Virgin Galactic will fly, but about 100 people have already paid full price for the trip, which comes to $50,000 per minute for the four minutes the travelers will spend in weightlessness. An additional 170 have put down deposits.
"It's no good saying it's just extravagant. It could lead to all kinds of things," said Evette Branson after christening the oddly shaped four-engine jet, dubbed Eve in her honor.
"If you're going to name a mother ship, you might as well name it after your mother," said her daredevil son, who nearly lost an eye when the champagne cork ricocheted off the fuselage, just below the pinup with the face of the onetime flight attendant.
"Hope they didn't poke a hole in it," said Buzz Aldrin, watching from the hangar. The second man on the moon did not pretend to be excited by the prospect of repeating on a commercial scale what Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and astronaut Alan Shepard first did 47 years ago.
But Aldrin said the venture may reignite interest in traveling in space, either on orbital routes that might whisk travelers from one place to another on Earth with unprecedented speed, or by sending humans to Mars.
"It's called leading," Aldrin said. "It's all part of that."
The mother ship looks like two airplanes joined at the wing. The space capsule that the larger plane will carry is still under wraps -- literally, a huge piece of black fabric held in place by black sandbags. The capsule will hang between the two fuselages until it is released at 48,000 feet.
It will then ignite its rocket engine, covering the next 300,000 feet in 90 seconds. The six passengers and two pilots will "pull" three Gs -- pushed back into their seats by three times the pull of gravity.
"Even though this is a pretty weird airplane, we expect it to fly pretty well," said Rutan, who also designed the Global Flyer that adventurer Steve Fossett piloted around the world nonstop in 2005. Both planes are made from composite materials, which the entrepreneurs trumpeted as an example to commercial airlines, whose preference for metal planes means higher fuel bills.
"They've introduced composites bit by bit," Rutan said.
Still, money was a bit of a sensitive subject. Branson built the Virgin Air brand as a budget transatlantic carrier, and appeared mildly abject at basing Galactic on the super-rich. He quoted market research that found "something like" 100,000 people would be willing to pay $100,000 to $200,000 for a trip to space. The number of potential customers skyrockets, as it were, when the price drops to $40,000 to $50,000.
"Obviously, we'd like to get the price down," Branson said. Then again, the first customers are being assured that by buying early, they are claiming a place in history.
The first customers are largely aviation enthusiasts, said Matthew D. Upchurch, who owns a luxury travel agency in Fort Worth called Virtuoso.
"There's this whole other wave of people who view travel as sort of a life-experience sort of thing," said Upchurch, who paid in full. "Because you think of how whoever's been into space says their life has been changed."
The experience of seeing the Earth, and the fabled visible thinness of its atmosphere, also plays into eco-tourism, a current passion of wealthy travelers, he said.
Virgin Galactic flew more than 100 of its customers to the Mojave hangar from Los Angeles International on a spanking-new Virgin America Airbus, which was identified on its nose cone as: "My Other Ride Is A Spaceship."
"You know what it is?" said Sunil Paul of San Francisco, who paid his $200,000 upfront from a fortune earned in software. "When I was 4 years old, my parents dragged me out of bed and said, 'You got to watch this.' It was Neil Armstrong walking on the moon."
The experience fired a passion for space that sent Paul to NASA for his first job out of college. What he found in government work was an appetite for the private-sector efficiencies that Virgin Galactic trumpets. But he never lost the passion.
"It's more than just the weightlessness, though I did zero-gravity training. It was awesome. Just awesome. It's the whole excitement of being launched, getting the G-forces. And it's a unique moment in time. We'll look back on it as a defining moment."