Talk about a party-crasher: Just hours after British billionaire Sir Richard Branson unveiled a gleaming new commercial spaceship in the California desert this week, hurricane-force winds leveled the gala event?s tents. But luckily no one ? or spaceship ? was harmed.
A new video and photos released by Branson?s space tourism venture Virgin Galactic recounts the harrowing Monday night after the company unveiled SpaceShipTwo, a new suborbital spaceliner slated to begin launching public trips to space in 2011. Dangerous winds forced the 800 revelers and reporters on hand for the spacecraft?s debut to evacuate the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif.
Winds gusting at speeds of up to 116 mph (186 kph) pummeled the event site and ripped the roof off the 200-foot (60-meter) main tent used during the SpaceShipTwo gala. It was the first time in 20 years that such winds, rain and freezing temperatures, Virgin Galactic officials said.
?It was absolutely incredible, the roll out of the spaceship had been fantastic and everybody was filled with terrific energy,? Branson said. ?We were all in the tents when the evacuation was called. Twenty minutes after the last of the 800 guests had been coached away, the main 200-foot tent literally took off.?
Views of the aftermath revealed the twisted and gnarled remains of the tent, but all of Virgin Galactic?s guests were safely evacuated.
The SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise, a sleek spacecraft designed to fly eight people ? six passengers and two pilots ? to suborbital space and back made through the gale unscathed. The rocket ship was attached to its massive WhiteKnightTwo mothership, called Eve, throughout the stormy encounter.
Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said both vehicles were well away from the tent area when it was destroyed.
SpaceShipTwo is a commercial spacecraft built for Virgin Galactic by the Mojave, Calif.-based company Scaled Composites founded by aerospace visionary Burt Rutan. Rutan and his Scaled colleagues also built the craft?s predecessor ? the single-pilot SpaceShipOne ? which flew several spaceflights in 2004 and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for privately financed, reusable suborbital vehicles that year.
Virgin Galactic plans to eventually expand its fleet up to five SpaceShipTwo vehicles and two WhiteKnightTwo motherships in order to offer trips to suborbital space 68 miles (110 km) above Earth. Ticket prices are going for $200,000 a ticket and many space tourists-to-be were on hand Monday night to see the first SpaceShipTwo make its public debut.
?We were fully expecting to be blown away by our beautiful new spaceship but got a little more than we bargained for!? Branson said.
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