Branson unveils tourist spacecraft

LONDON: Sir Richard Branson has unveiled the rocket plane he will use to take fare-paying passengers into space. SpaceShipTwo was presented to the world in Mojave, California.

The vehicle will undergo testing over the next 18 months before being allowed to take ticketed individuals on short-hop trips just above the atmosphere.

Billionaire Sir Richard, who heads the Virgin Group, intends to run the first flights out of New Mexico before extending operations around the globe. Built from lightweight carbon composite materials and powered by a hybrid rocket motor, SS2 is based on the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne concept - a rocket plane that is lifted initially by a carrier vehicle before blasting skywards. Speaking at the official unveiling event, Sir Richard said he had been dreaming of going into space since watching the moon landings.

“There are thousands of people who would love to go to space, to be able to look out the window, to marvel at the beautiful Earth,” he said. “Through Virgin Galactic we will make it possible.” SS1 became the world’s first private spaceship with a series of high-altitude flights in 2004. Its successor, however, is twice as large, measuring 18m (60ft) in length. And whereas SpaceShipOne only had a single pilot (and the ballast equivalent of two passengers), SS2 will have a crew of two and room for six