‘Wow’ Moments Await SpaceShipTwo Passengers, Pilot Says
Sir Richard Branson at the unveiling of the mock-up of SpaceShipTwo at the Wired Magazine NEXTFEST, Javits Center, New York City
Credit: Michael Soluri, for SPACE.com

NEW YORK - There will be no shortage of high moments for future Virgin Galactic passengers set on a suborbital ride aboard a SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, a pilot who tested the vehicle's predecessor said Friday.

"Everything you see with your eyes is 'Wow,' and everything you feel with your body is 'Wow,'" test pilot Brian Binnie told a packed crowd here at Wired Magazine's NextFest forum. "It's literally like you've been carried away."

Binnie should know. He piloted SpaceShipOne - the precursor to SpaceShipTwo (both designed by aerospace veteran Burt Rutan) - when it clinched the $10 million Ansari X Prize for privately-developed suborbital and reusable spacecraft.

"SpaceShipOne was a handful and we're building SpaceShipTwo to make it a much more pilot-friendly experience," Binnie told a crowd of more than 300 people, nearly all of whom raised their hands when asked if they hoped to fly in space. "We think it's going to be a much more manageable experience than SpaceShipOne."

Built by Rutan's Mojave, California-based firm Scaled Composites, SpaceShipOne reached an altitude of nearly 70 miles (112 kilometers) in 2004 when Binnie piloted the air-launched vehicle into suborbital space on its third flight. His fellow test pilot Mike Melvill flew SpaceShipOne's two previous flights - including one that featured a series of unexpected rolls during launch.

Shortly after SpaceShipOne's historic flights, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson announced plans for the Virgin Galactic fleet of five SpaceShipTwo vehicles - also to be built by Scaled Composites - to carry paying passengers into suborbital space at a starting ticket price of $200,000 each. Branson unveiled a concept interior for his Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicles, which are said to be three times larger than SpaceShipOne, on Thursday.

"It's a much larger ship, and we have a much larger space," said Alex Tai, Virgin Galactic's vice president of operations, during a panel discussion today. "You'll really get a chance to see the majesty of the Earth you've just left once we get into space."

SpaceShipTwo and its massive carrier plane WhiteKnightTwo are slated to begin initial test flights by early 2008 with operational flights to follow by 2009, Virgin Galactic officials said, adding that they will base initial space shots out of Mojave, California before transitioning to a New Mexico spaceport.

Unlike SpaceShipOne, which carried one pilot per flight, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo vehicles will carry six passengers and two pilots, and could even be modified later to carry a 1,763-pound (800-kilogram) science payload into suborbital space for about $2 million should the market demand warrant it, the spaceline's president Will Whitehorn said. But Virgin Galactic's target market remains thrill-seeking passengers eager to view their home planet from afar while grabbing a few uninterrupted minutes of weightlessness, Whitehorn added.

Virgin Galactic officials said the passenger-carrying SpaceShipTwo has been designed such that a full 85 percent of the world's population could qualify for a 2.5-hour flight towards suborbital space.

Tai said that prospective passengers would receive a simple medical form that their own general practitioner could use to decide whether if they met the standard SpaceShipTwo health guidelines. Passengers-to-be would then meet with Virgin Galactic medical personnel for a more in-depth analysis, he added.

"It really doesn't matter if you're 80 years old or 10 years old," Tai said. "We've designed a ship that makes the physical effects of the flight quite benign."

Virgin Galactic officials said more than 65,000 people have registered their interest to ride a SpaceShipTwo vehicle into suborbital space, with more than 200 already reserving their seats by making a payment deposit.

"The atmosphere in there is going to be bristling and electric," Binnie said of SpaceShipTwo flights. "If you are not happy when you're weightless, then something's wrong."