First Public Spaceship to be Unveiled Today
Virgin Galactic released this sneak peak of the new SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceliner (center) attached to its carrier aircraft just ahead of their Dec. 7, 2009 unveiling.
Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg.

MOJAVE, Calif. ? It has been pre-sold as an "out of this world premiere" ? and you can't get more off-world than unveiling a spaceliner built to whisk customers to the edge of space.

SpaceShipTwo is making its debut here at about 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. ET (5:30 ? 6 p.m. PT) today. The super-slick looking rocket plane will be showcased as the world's first passenger-carrying commercial spacecraft. The enterprise is under the financial wing of well-heeled U.K. billionaire and adventurer, Sir Richard Branson.?

Branson created Virgin Galactic ? billed as the world's first commercial spaceline.

The scene here at the Mojave Air and Space Port is part desert scenery, part festival, part Hollywood glitz ? but full-time entrepreneurial space spunk. It's home base for several privately held ventures eager to change the landscape of access to space.

Today's festivities are being held within a specially-built and spectacularly lighted complex that includes two huge domes, tents and other structure. Some 800 dignitaries and media folks are gathering here for the celebrated unveiling.

On display too is SpaceShipTwo's mothership, the WhiteKnightTwo.

Both vehicles have been designed and built by Scaled Composites, based at the Mojave Air and Space Port and founded by rebel aerospace designer, Burt Rutan, now Chief Technology Officer and Chairman Emeritus of the aerospace firm.

The WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, on its own, is a milestone in design. That craft was revealed to the public in July 2008 and has been undergoing extensive testing ? already chalking up 22 flights. The plane, looking like a flying catamaran, is the world's largest all carbon composite aircraft and many of its component parts have been built using composite materials for the very first time.

But now it's showtime for SpaceShipTwo.

Robust and safe

The suborbital SpaceShipTwo will hold six passengers and two pilots. It has received a final buff for its early evening, red carpet entrance. Throughout 2010, the rocket plane will undergo a far-reaching and all-encompassing test agenda.

"This is the world's first manned commercial spacecraft. I think for 40 years people have dreamed of this...but they have increasingly believed that it just wasn't going to happen," said Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic.

Whitehorn flags economics over those years that have defeated commercial spaceflight, "because there's been no direction shown in government rocketry towards the kind of future of people being able to go into space regularly and easily," he told SPACE.com.

The models of the space plane have never done it justice, Whitehorn observed. "When people see for themselves SpaceShipTwo?this spaceship looks robust, fit for purpose and looks very safe. It looks like something you'd imagine getting into. When you see it?it kind of looks just right."

A take away message from the event today, Whitehorn added:

"It's really here. It has been done. This has been five years of extremely hard work. The result is something quite utterly unique. For us, space tourism is a good goal in its own right because it will create the circumstances of regularity and safety. And that will give the confidence for the kind of wall of private sector investment I do see coming into space launch in the future."

High expectations

For the crowds gathered here today, there is expectation of viewing a milestone in aerospace technology, the dawn of private space launch, for humans, science research and payloads.

That anticipation rings true for Stuart Witt, General Manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port. He's been busy directing the expansion of Mojave's East Kern Airport District's to handle the goings and comings of privately-built spaceships.

The Mojave Air and Space Port was designated by the Federal Aviation Administration's commercial space office as the nation's first inland spaceport and played host to the world as Scaled Composites qualified and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize at the sprawling complex ? the birthplace of the first human-rated commercial space program in the world.

Today, the rollout of SpaceShipTwo signals another step forward in public space travel, Witt noted.

"This event underscores once again that the private sector with small teams can achieve rapid quantifiable results. Something on the order of 100 people produced these two new craft, SpaceShipTwo and the WhiteKnightTwo," Witt explained.

It has been historically proven, Witt said, that humanity requires risk takers to open new frontiers leading to safety breakthroughs for all humankind. That goes for ocean as well as air exploration, he added.

"Magellan or Lindbergh come to mind...one opened the sea to world exploration, the other put a spotlight on air travel," Witt said. "It is time for the private sector to commercialize access to space in a big way."

No longer a paper promise

Witt said that he is heartened to see people of means and vision come together with those that have demonstrated engineering genius. That melding yields bold new concepts.

"The private sector aviation industry has produced a transportation safety record?and it is very likely the private sector can deliver similar results in space travel through the commercialization of space," Witt concluded.

Similar in view is Steve Landeene, Executive Director of New Mexico's Spaceport America ? the home launch site for Virgin Galactic's commercial operations.

"The dawn of commercial space is upon us," Landeene told SPACE.com. "This is no longer a paper promise?but hardware and infrastructure that changes the way we will access space forever."

For Landeene, The SpaceShipTwo roll-out "signifies the birth of a new mode of transportation."

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.