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First look at SpaceShipTwo

Virgin Galactic

Artwork shows Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo with wings in the "feathered" position.

Click on the image to see a slide show of concepts and the construction process.

The new designs for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and WhiteKnightTwo mothership were unveiled in New York today, and they include some unexpected twists. In fact, you could be excused if you think you're seeing double, or even triple.

Today's event was the most detailed look yet at the craft that will carry on the legacy of SpaceShipOne, the first commercially developed spaceship and winner of the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

The biggest twist is that the WhiteKnightTwo plane has spread out and sprouted another passenger cabin on its 140-foot-long wing. The two cabins and four Pratt & Whitney jet engines straddle a central mount for the rocket plane, which will be carried to an altitude of 50,000 feet and dropped. Then SpaceShipTwo will light up its hybrid rocket engine for the final push to the edge of outer space, reaching an altitude of at least 68 miles (110 kilometers).

The twin cabins are basically carbon copies of the SpaceShipTwo cabin, so riding on WhiteKnightTwo will give passengers a taste of what the big blast to space will be like. While commercial astronauts are taking their trip to see the curving earth below the black sky of space, the passengers on WhiteKnightTwo will experience a lower-altitude version of the experience - including a bit of zero-G.

Burt Rutan, the craft's designer and head of California-based Scaled Composites, imagined a scenario in which a husband riding in the mothership watches his wife take off in the spaceship, sitting only 25 feet away.

"You'll say, 'Honey, have a nice flight,'" Rutan told scores of journalists and dignitaries at the American Museum of Natural History. "While she is enjoying black sky and weightlessness, you, in the launch airplane, will be doing parabolas and floating about the cabin."

Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images
Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, and Scaled

Composites aerospace designer Burt Rutan unveil scale models of the

WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, at left, and the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane amid hoopla at the American Museum of Natural History.

SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space, with enough headroom to allow for free floating. It's about twice as large as SpaceShipOne, with 18-inch-wide windows and reclining seats for fare-paying fliers.

More than 100 people are already in line for spaceflights, at a cost of $200,000 per person, and Rutan expects there to be thousands more: He said the innovations incorporated into SpaceShipTwo will make human spaceflight "at least as safe as the airliners of the late '20s."

One of the reporters was surprised at that: Shouldn't spaceflight ideally be as safe as commercial aviation is today?

"Don't believe anyone who tells you that the entry level of new spaceships will be as safe as the modern airliner," Rutan responded. He noted that the fatality rate for orbital spaceflight has been 4 percent, and that he was aiming for the suborbital SpaceShipTwo to be "hundreds of times safer."

When will it fly?

Virgin Galactic said work on SpaceShipTwo was nearly 60 percent complete, and WhiteKnightTwo was more than 80 percent complete.

In the past, Virgin Galactic has said passenger flights could start in the 2009-2010 time frame - but that was before last July's fatal accident at Scaled Composites' Mojave testing ground. The development of SpaceShipTwo's rocket engine has been held up because of the accident investigation, and today Virgin Galactic is saying only that WhiteKnightTwo will go into flight tests later this year. Gliding drop tests of the SpaceShipTwo craft, sans engine, could begin this year as well, said Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic's commercial director.

"This is very unlikely to be a program that will be delivered on a straight line," Attenborough told me.

Several would-be passengers attended today's event, and were easily recognizable because of their black Virgin-branded flight suits. Perveen Crawford, Virgin Galactic's first paid-up customer from Hong Kong, told me that she was ready to go anytime.

"It doesn't matter how it looks, just take me up there," she said.

Virgin Galactic's founder, British billionaire Richard Branson, has said he'll give his 89-year-old father, Edward, a ride on SpaceShipTwo as a sign of his confidence in its safety. "They'll have to do it fairly quickly, or I won't be around," Edward Branson told me jokingly after the news conference.

Edward Branson hasn't yet gone through astronaut training, but 80 other fliers-to-be have taken practice sessions at the NASTAR Center in Pennsylvania. Passengers are expected to endure accelerations of up to 3.5 times Earth's gravity, or 3.5 G's, on the way up - and up to 6 G's coming down. NASTAR's centrifuge duplicates that flight profile for training purposes.

Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images
British billionaire Richard Branson and aerospace designer Burt Rutan

hold up a scale model of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane hitched

aboard its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft after today's news briefing.

In the wake of the centrifuge sessions, Attenborough said two fliers have withdrawn from the flight program because of health concerns, and three have delayed their training - which translates into a higher-than-expected 93 percent success rate.

People wouldn't necessarily be the only payload: Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said the WhiteKnightTwo air-launch system could also be adapted for putting satellites into orbit. Even on the passenger flights, scientific experiments could ride along just as they do on government-supported spaceflights, "helping to answer key questions about climate and the mysteries of the universe," Richard Branson said.

Making their mark

Compared with the pointy-nosed look of SpaceShipOne, the cabin designs for SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo look a bit more rounded, more like a business jet than a Looney Tunes rocketship. The white-and-red colors of the first commercial spaceship were replaced on the scale models shown today with a white, blue and black motif.

The twin tails and the belly of the SpaceShipTwo craft were emblazoned with a design based on the iris of Richard Branson's eye.

Branson had history on his mind as he addressed today's audience.

"2008 really will be the year of the spaceship," he said. Later on, Branson was asked whether he hoped he'd go down in history for backing the first commercial spaceline. Branson quickly gave the credit to Rutan, but then noted that everyone would like to leave their mark on earth.

"I suppose we'd all like to make our mark when we're out of Earth, too," Branson said.

You can get your own look at the new design concepts at Virgin Galactic. And stay tuned for further updates later today, here on the Log.

Update for 5 p.m. ET: Some of the folks posting comments have noted that Branson has positioned himself as a champion of climate consciousness as well as commercial spaceflight. During comments at this morning's news conference as well as at an afternoon session, Branson tried to address that pairing.

He noted that environmentalist James Lovelock was among the first to sign up for a seat on SpaceShipTwo. "He's told me that he thinks this project is one of the most important industrial projects of the 21st century," Branson said.

Branson also downplayed aviation's contribution to greenhouse-gas production. He argued that "seemingly benign" factors such as information technology were actually bigger contributors to the carbon dioxide problem - and that space technologies could make a big contribution to analyzing and even solving environmental ills.

This afternoon's audience was aimed primarily at space boosters rather than journalists, and there was somewhat more whooping and hollering as Branson and Rutan gave their spiel. That brought a smile to Rutan's lips. 

"This is a better crowd ... I've always said that my best talks are when there's absolutely no press at all," Rutan joked.

Update for 7 p.m. ET: I just wanted to point out that we have a slide show that gives you a look at the artist's conceptions as well as the real-world work being done on SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo (which Virgin Galactic officials say just might be named Black Knight 1 because it's so different from WhiteKnightOne). If you missed the slide show the first time around, take it out for a spin.

I've also put together another Log posting focusing on the impact of last year's fatal accident at Scaled Composites, which has held up Rutan's rocket development schedule.

Update for 10:50 a.m. ET Jan. 24: We've put together a must-see video report about the SpaceShipTwo design unveiling.

Update for 12:50 a.m. ET Jan. 25:Newsweek interviews "Rocket Boy" engineer Homer Hickam about SpaceShipTwo and its flightworthiness.