Sir Richard Branson has unveiled the shuttle his company will use to send tourists into space and revealed that one of the first launchpads for flights will be in Scotland.The White Knight Two has a 140ft wingspan and will act as the launch craft for a smaller spaceship carrying passengers for their journey into the earth's sub-orbit.
Displaying the ship in the Mojave Desert, outside Los Angeles, the Virgin Group entrepreneur said: "It's quiet something, isn't it?"It's one of the most beautiful and extraordinary aviation vehicles ever developed."
The catamaran-type craft, which resembles two separate planes joined by a giant internal wing, is powered by four Pratt and Whitney engines and has been made by American space entrepreneur Burt Ratan's Space Composites company.
For the first time Sir Richard revealed that the company is in talks with local authorities, the British government and the Civil Aviation Authority to launch spaceflights from the UK.Lossiemouth is one of a number of locations – including two in Sweden – where the spaceship will launch its two-hour flights from as early as 2010.
Although not revealing the exact location, a Virgin spokesman later said that it was on British government owned land outside of the town.
Sir Richard also stressed the flight programme would be about more than just space tourism – unveiling plans to open up the craft to scientific researchers, offering to launch research tests into the atmosphere at much cheaper rates than those by mainstream space institutions such as NASA."Some day we maybe able to use space to fuel solar power satellites through the sun," he said.
The craft could also one day be able to ferry passengers around the world outside the earths atmosphere, so cutting down on pollution from jet fuel.
Sir Richard made the comments as he showed off Virgin Galactic's launch shuttle for the first time – to a group of around 200 invited guests including future astronauts, local politicians, NASA representatives, engineers, his family, as well as the world's media.The first White Knight Two craft has been named "Eve", after Sir Richard's mother.
She and husband Ted were alongside the billionaire entrepreneur in the Mojave Desert, close to Edwards Air Force Base, for the unveiling.
The couple both hope to be aboard the first flight alongside Sir Richard himself and children Holly and Sam.
Mr Branson Senior said: "It's terribly exciting. My worry is that I won't be on the first flight. I'm 90 now."
Testing of White Knight Two is already under way, and that of Space Ship Two will start June, with 12-18 months of testing likely.
As a result, the first flight is likely to be in either 2010 or 2011, aiming to fly 500 people in the first year and 50,000 in the first ten years.
The launch party also included former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to stand on the moon, who admitted that Virgin's form of space travel would not be quite the same as that which he experienced.
He told The Telegraph: "Its filling the gap with a different definition of space. It will bridge the gap between zero gravity airlines and orbital flight."
Would-be space tourists will have to pay £100,000 for a flight, which will last two-and-a-half hours including a few minutes of weightlessness in suborbital flight.
Approximately 250 people have already paid deposits to become astronauts, with a further 85,000 having registered their interest.
The company has taken around £17 million in deposits to date, with initial astronauts set to include environmental theorist James Lovelock, who coined the Gaia theory, and British physicist Stephen Hawking.
Will Whitehorn, head of Virgin Galactic, said White Knight Two would be the world's most fuel efficient high-altitude jet in the world.
The craft is made of carbon composite material, making it lighter and more fuel efficient.
The cabin of the spaceship will have six passenger seats, and two pilots.
Virgin Galactic's flights will be flown by specially-trained pilots who will undergo hundreds of hours of training before being allowed to handle the launch craft, which will first take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The company is also talking to Swedish authorities to eventually launch the plane from there, as well as authorities in the UK regarding Lossiemouth.
Virgin's US domestic airline, Virgin America, will provide some of the first pilots through an ambitious exchange scheme.
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