Virgin Galactic's Commercial Spaceliner Makes Public Debut
Virgin Galactic publicly unveils the SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise, its first suporbital spaceliner, attached to the WhiteKnightTwo Eve carrier craft on Dec. 7, 2009 in Mojave, Calif.
Credit: Robert Pearlman/

This story was updated at 10 p.m. EST.

MOJAVE, Calif. ? It was pre-sold as an ?out of this world premier? ? and you can?t get more off-world than Virgin Galactic?s Monday unveiling of a spaceliner built to whisk customers to the edge of space.

SpaceShipTwo made its debut here today ? a super-slick looking rocket plane 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 and his space tourism firm Virgin Galactic.?

Some 800 onlookers were treated to the rollout ceremonies ? an event that took place in a very cold, windy, and near-snow desert environment here at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Still, attendees were treated to a glittery and spectacular site ? the public unveiling of SpaceShipTwo, slung underneath its carrier aircraft.

At the rollout, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was joined by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for the honor of christening SpaceShipTwo as Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Enterprise. 

?I have to tell you that there?s a lot of cool things you get to do when you?re Governor, said Schwarzenegger. ?But today is one of the coolest things that I?ve ever done.?

Schwarzenegger said that ?space is our next great frontier,? and pledged to keep California in the forefront of space enterprise as the ?aerospace capital of the world.? The SpaceShipTwo project has already created hundreds of jobs here and will create hundreds of more jobs, he noted.

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

Space spunk

The scene was part desert scenery, part festival, part Hollywood glitz ? but full-time entrepreneurial space spunk. It?s the home base for several privately-held ventures eager to change the landscape of access to space.

Today?s festivities were held within a specially-built and spectacularly lighted complex that included two huge domes, tents and other structure. WhiteKnightTwo carried SpaceShipTwo onto the tarmac to the delight of onlookers in a well-orchestrated, music and audio extravaganza.

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.

?I want to say that this program has been, at this point, harder than we thought it would be. It?s taken longer and is more difficult,? Rutan admitted, saluting Branson for sticking with the project. ?This is an enormous milestone today in unveiling the first commercial manned spacecraft. I look forward to moving into the test program,? he said at rollout ceremonies.

Milestone-making design

Next year will mark a major shakeout of the SpaceShipTwo, said Rutan.

?We?ll do captive carry, glide tests?then rocket-powered flights and then open the envelope and fly to space,? he added.

Rutan made clear his admiration for the Scaled Composite team that has crafted WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo ? a true commercial suborbital space system: Designers Jim Tighe, Bob Morgan, Matt Stinemetze, Marc Zeitlin, and Peter Kalogiannis in avionics, along with design and assembly teams ?that have worked long and hard for this milestone,? he told

The WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, on its own, is a milestone-making design. That craft was revealed to the public in July 2008 and has been undergoing extensive testing ? already chalking up 22 flights with more to come on the books.

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 today it was show time for SpaceShipTwo.

Branson said that he was nearly reduced to tears in first seeing the SpaceShipTwo during his current visit to the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Robust, fit for purpose and looks very safe

The suborbital SpaceShipTwo is a six-passenger and two-pilot craft. It received one final buff before 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

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 was an expectation of viewing a milestone in aerospace technology, the dawn of private space launch, for humans, science research and payloads.

That anticipation rang 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 ?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.?

Raring to go

New Mexico Governor Richardson saluted the WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo effort, pointing out that work in establishing Spaceport America is well underway. A deal struck between Branson and Richardson in 2006 is leading to the location of Virgin Galactic?s world headquarters in New Mexico.

In New Mexico, there is a flurry of activity getting Spaceport America ready for the first space tourists, Richardson said.

Construction of New Mexico?s Spaceport America?s runway is rapidly taking shape, employing more than 200 people. Construction of Virgin Galactic?s Hangar-Terminal is set to get underway soon. The majority of construction is set to be completed by December 2010.

?My state is energized and raring to go. We?re proud to be on the ground floor of the second space age,? Richardson said. ?I call upon the Obama Administration to embrace commercial space travel,? he concluded.

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 since 1999.