More than five years ago Burt Rutan made history with SpaceShipOne, the first civilian- built vehicle to reach space. That rocketplane hangs in the Milestones of Flight gallery in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., alongside Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, Yeager's X-1 rocketplane Glamorous Glennis, and Armstrong's Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia.
Now for the main event: SpaceShipTwo will be unveiled tonight in Mojave, California, where Rutan and his company Scaled Composites have been working in secrecy for several years. SpaceShipTwo will not soon come to the Milestones of Flight gallery because, if Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has his way, the rocketplane will remain in service like an airliner, lofting paying passengers on suborbital flights for several minutes of weightlessness. The science community is interested too, for the research value of suborbital flight, and is training interested scientists.
Here's a neat animation of how the experience may turn out:
Flown by two pilots, each craft will have the cabin area of a Gulfstream V business jet, and will carry six paying passengers at a top speed of 2,500 miles an hour, faster than an SR-71 Blackbird. They'll fly much higher than the Blackbird's 15-to-16-mile altitude—SpaceShipTwo will reach between 84 and 87 miles. The passenger seats will recline during reentry to allow passengers to tolerate the G forces more comfortably.
There will eventually be five SpaceShipTwo rocketplanes built under a joint venture of Scaled Composites and Branson's Virgin Group called The Spaceship Company, which also will build two carrier airplanes named WhiteKnightTwo. Virgin Galactic, the launch customer, will have exclusive use of the craft during the first year and a half of commercial operations.
The first captive-carry flights are expected to take place within the next month or two, but the first suborbital test flight may not happen until 2011. Early commercial flights will run about $200,000 a ticket.
For all the Trekkies out there who applied enough pressure back in the 1970s to get the first NASA space shuttle orbiter named Enterprise, well, congrats, you've done it again. The first SpaceShipTwo will be named Enterprise, for the very same starship.