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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo (Photos)
At roughly 5.30pm on Monday evening, Richard Branson, Burt Rutan, Governor Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson proudly rolled out Virgin Galactic's first test flight ready spacecraft. After the dramatic unveiling, the sub-orbital, eight passenger vehicle was promptly christened as the VSS Enterprise - a homage to a handful of historical vessels that have shared the same name.
The entire event was done in true Branson fashion - lights, music, and plenty of beautiful people. Over 800 press, crew and "future astronauts" were in attendance, despite high winds and occasional snow flurries at the remote Mojave Spaceport.
Full photo coverage after the break.
Governors Bill Richardson and Arnold Schwarzenegger were on site to emphasize their appreciation of Virgin Galactic's venture; all future test flights will be performed in 2010 out of Mojave, California and the first official launches will take place at Spaceport America, in New Mexico. Governor Richardson has made a large investment in bringing this new industry to his state, and even called for President Obama to make a bigger investment in the future of space tourism.
The crowd in attendance was dominated by citizens that have already set down the full $200,000 deposit to secure their flights into space; a diverse group of enthusiasts that ranges from the wealthiest of entrepreneurs to humble schoolteachers.
Gallery: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo
After the press conference, the crowd gathered on the chilly Mojave Spaceport runway to witness the rolling out of SpaceShipTwo, carried by Virgin MotherShip Eve. The event was cut short however, due to high wind advisories in the area that threatened the lavish, inflatable domes and tent structures set up by Virgin Galactic for the event.
Critics claim that since the VSS Enterprise will only be making sub-orbital flights, humans are still a long way off from lengthy space travel. The current power that the craft is capable of will need to be scaled up to nearly 60 times before full orbital potential is possible.
Nonetheless, Virgin promises that the first flights aboard the craft will be an experience unlike any other - with full 3-day training sessions for all passengers and over 6 minutes of complete weightlessness on the flights. The development also opens up the floodgates for future progression in rapid inter-continental travel and cost efficient methods of putting satellites or heavy equipment in space.
As spacecraft designer Burt Rutan has said, "We need affordable space travel to inspire our youth, to let them know that they can experience their dreams, can set significant goals and be in a position to lead all of us to future progress in exploration, discovery and fun."
Virgin Galactic has undoubtedly launched us into that exciting period; but while the VSS Enterprise may not be mankind's leap into full-orbital spaceflights, it's certainly the necessary stepping stone for space tourism and proof that private groups have the capability and support to forever change our perception of travel.
For more information about booking flights into space, you can check out Virgin Galactic's website, or Virtuoso's select list of Accredited Space Agents.