British billionaire Sir Richard Branson showed off a key piece of his fledgling commercial space program Monday, unveiling a carrier aircraft designed to launch a passenger-carrying spaceship.
A crowd of engineers, dignitaries and space enthusiasts gathered inside a Mojave Desert hangar for the unveiling countdown. As the hangar door flew open, White Knight Two appeared outside under the sunny desert sky with Branson and American aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites waving from the cabin.
White Knight Two, billed as the world's largest all-carbon-composite aircraft, is "one of the most beautiful and extraordinary aviation vehicles ever developed," Branson said.
The public showing was the first concrete evidence of progress since the Rutan-designed SpaceShipOne became the first private, manned rocket to reach space in 2004. After the groundbreaking flights, Rutan and Branson partnered to commercialize on the success. Branson dubbed the venture Virgin Galactic.
Despite the buzz surrounding White Knight Two's debut, significant hurdles remain before customers can experience zero gravity for $200,000 a ticket.
White Knight Two must undergo a rigorous flight testing program, beginning in the fall. Engineers still need to finish building SpaceShipOne's successor, SpaceShipTwo, which is now about 70 percent complete, according to Virgin Galactic.
The mothership is a white, four-engine jet with room between its twin fuselages where SpaceShipTwo will be mounted for the flight to launch altitude. Virgin Galactic christened it Eve after Branson's mother, and the aircraft's side has a motif of a helmeted blond woman flying a Virgin flag.
White Knight Two has a 140-foot wingspan, about the same as a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the World War II long-range heavy bomber.