SpaceShipTwo Gets Its Curtain Call

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Richard Branson, the U.K. airline mogul who has joined with Burt Rutan to build spaceships for tourists, unveiled a mockup of SpaceShipTwo last week at the Wired NextFest event in New York City. The ship, as expected, is a larger version of SpaceShipOne. It's designed to carry six passengers and two pilots. It will be carried aloft to about 60,000 feet on a carrier named White Knight Two, then detach and rocket into space at about Mach 4. Virgin Galactic has also launched a spiffy new version of its Web site, with lots of new movies and information about the project. According to the site, flight testing of the prototype is expected to start next year. It was also reported last week that Branson is negotiating with British TV networks to develop a reality show where six contestants will compete for a spot on a ride into space. Branson's first commercial craft will be named the VSS (Virgin SpaceShip) Enterprise, and is expected to be ready to go in early 2009. Space tourists will undergo three days of pre-flight preparation. Seats will cost about $200,000 each.

In other space news, Rutan is working with Transformational Space Corporation to build a two-stage vehicle that could reach orbit and would act as a taxi to the International Space Station. And also last week, Jim Benson, founder of SpaceDev (the company that built the rocket motor for SpaceShipOne), said he is starting a new company called Benson Space Co. and aims to be the first to offer space flights for tourism. His Dreamchaser ship looks similar to the space shuttle. It would take off vertically and glide to a runway landing.