Branson unveils his spaceship

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Billionaire Richard Branson yesterday unveiled the first commercial passenger spaceship, a sleek black-and-white vessel that represents an expensive gamble on creating a commercial space tourism industry.

Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Branson's Virgin Atlantic Airways, hopes the winged, minivan-sized SpaceShipTwo will rocket tourists into zero gravity beginning in two or three years.

"This will be the start of commercial space travel," Branson said at the launch in California's Mojave Desert. "You become an astronaut."

The project, with a $450 million (£273m) budget, would see the construction of six commercial spaceships that would take passengers high enough to achieve weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth set against the backdrop of space.

A twin-hulled aircraft named Eve would carry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of about 60,000 feet before releasing it. The spaceship would then fire its onboard rocket engines, climbing to about 65 miles above Earth.

The trip would take about 2-1/2 hours, with passengers experiencing about five minutes of weightlessness.

Some 300 aspiring astronauts have put down deposits for the $200,000 (£121,000) ride, which includes three days of training.

Eventually, Virgin Galactic may offer suborbital travel that could dramatically cut the length of flights.

"Subject to American government permission, we may well start developing a program to try to take people from continent to continent, you know, two hours from Los Angeles to Australia," Branson said in an interview with Reuters TV.

"Can't promise that we're going to be able to do it, but if you don't try things you don't succeed, so we'll definitely give it a go."

Other potential business ventures include flying scientists and experiments and launching small payloads into space.

Branson hired aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites to build the commercial spaceship fleet after a Rutan prototype named SpaceShipOne won the $10m (£6m) Ansari X Prize in 2004 for the first private piloted spaceflight.

Commercial space flight has been a dream for decades, but the 2004 flight was the first proof that industry might be able to achieve it without the help of government, which historically has dominated space travel.

A lethal 2007 explosion during a rocket engine test by Scaled Composites, however, illustrated the danger and risk to creating a safe and profitable venture.

Branson, in the Reuters Television interview, said that the flights would be safer than NASA's space shuttle.

"I think because it's so much younger, it's just that much safer than what NASA has done using old technology which is 50, 60 years old," he said.

The environmental impact would be minimal, Branson said.

"It's almost zero carbon output. We can put people into space for less carbon output than say, a flight from New York to L.A. and back, and that's for your particular seat on the flight from New York to L.A. and back," he said. "And I think in time, we will almost definitely be able to get to zero carbon output."

SpaceShipOne, which is on display at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, made three suborbital flights.

A 10-month atmospheric test flight program is expected to begin on Tuesday and would be followed by extensive test flights into space before passenger travel in 2011 or 2012.

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