Virgin joins 70-mile-high club with launch of spaceship

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Guy Adams joins Sir Richard Branson as he unveils world's first commercial rocket

She didn't attempt lift-off, but she did roll very neatly across the tarmac. The nose cone stayed in one piece when Arnold Schwarzenegger smashed a bottle of champagne across it. And when Sir Richard Branson proudly dubbed his new spacecraft "very sexy" and admitted that seeing it for the first time "nearly reduced me to tears", the extremely wealthy customers who have paid to be among the first to ride in her roared approval and raised their hands to perform Vulcan salutes.

The British entrepreneur introduced the world to The VSS Enterprise on Monday night. It will be the world’s first commercial vessel capable of taking paying passengers into space. And the unveiling, at a Hollywood-style event held at a fortified airfield in the Mojave desert, marked the latest small step towards what he’s enthusiastically billed as a giant leap for mankind that will one day revolutionise commercial travel and usher in a brave new future era of space exploration.

Sir Richard’s baby certainly looked the part, when she emerged from the middle distance accompanied by flashing laser beams and thumping dance music. The futuristic, bullet-shaped VSS Enterprise is roughly the size of a private jet, and is powered by a rocket engine. It boasts an elaborate, bendy tail, together with a row of small windows from which up to six brave punters, floating around at zero gravity, will be able to take souvenir photographs of Planet Earth.

She arrived at the bash attached to the catamaran-style “mother-ship” that will eventually carry her to a height of 50,000 feet, before releasing her into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Using nitrous oxide, VSS Enterprise will then blast to an eventual height of 65 miles, before pivoting and gracefully dropping back to earth. Her elaborate tail, which like most of the ship is made from an extremely light carbon-fibre compound, will slow the plunge, like a sort of falling shuttlecock.

Sir Richard’s firm, Virgin Galactic, is selling rides in this suborbital ship for $200,000m [£125k] each. The flights last a total of just two-and-a-half hours, will include a mere five minutes of weightlessness, and won’t commence until 2011 at the earliest. However the company claims to have already signed-up a 300 customers (people it describes as “future astronauts”) who have happily shelled-out a combined $42m [£26.25m] in deposits.

Many of them were among the 800 guests at Monday’s somewhat surreal launch event, where they rubbed shoulders with the world’s media, a selection of celebrities like Governor Schwarzenegger and the former Dallas actress Victoria Principal, glamorous cocktail waitresses, and dozens of Virgin Galactic staff dressed in black and silver jumpsuits that recalled a 1970s Bond film.

Among the expectant throng was the British advertising magnate Trevor Beattie, who said that he’d decided to explore the final frontier almost five years ago. “The world is divided into people who want to go into space and people who don’t,” he said. “There’s so many reasons to go, from feeling what it’s like to go from zero to 300 miles an hour in four seconds, to getting the experience of being weightless. From my point of view, why would you possibly not want to?”

Other prominent customers to have already signed on the dotted line and purchased a trip on the VSS Enterprise include Stephen Hawking and the 90-year-old scientist James Lovelock, who like all passengers will have to undergo several days of medical tests and training in “zero g” simulators. The X-Men film director Brian Singer has also signed up to take one of the first journeys.

Before that can happen, though, the ship will have to negotiate an extensive series of test flights that will last for at least the next year. In a bid to publicly demonstrate his faith in the reliability and safety of the process, Sir Richard has promised that he will be the first “civilian” to travel in the spacecraft, accompanied by his children, Holly and Sam, and his elderly father, Ted.

“We will not be putting anybody into space until test pilots have done many, many trips and they’re absolutely certain its safe,” he said, noting that thanks to various high-profile disasters, four percent of all the astronauts who have so far gone into space have died. “My wife is letting me take my children and parents up there and she wouldn’t forgive me if we did not come home. So trust me: it will be tested properly.”

Sir Richard has raised more than $400m [£250m] to build a fleet of five identical ships. By 2020, he envisions a space travel industry where several carriers compete to take passengers into space, driving the cost of a trip down to mere hundreds of thousands of pounds. Eventually, people may use space to travel from country to country, he believes, cutting journey-times for long-haul flights to minutes, and meaning that VSS Enterprise will become: “a watchword for the concept of human endeavour in space for generations to come.”

It’s either an act of extraordinary hubris, or an extremely canny investment. But Sir Richard isn’t the only one betting big on the future of space travel. Investors from Abu Dhabi, who paid $280m [£175m] for a 32 percent stake in his project, while the government of California has subsidised development of the rocket in Mojave in hope of creating a lucrative “Silicon Valley” for the new industry there.

New Mexico, whose governor Bill Richardson spoke alongside California’s Governor Schwarzenegger at the unveiling, has also chipped in, putting-up all of the $300m necessary to build the “spaceport” from which Sir Richard’s commercial flights will eventually depart. The desert state, the scene of countless UFO sightings hopes it will eventually become the Heathrow of space travel.

Quite how such lavish spending sits with both politicians' committment to combating climate change remains to be seen, though perhaps Governor Schwarzenegger will be able to explain how sending wealthy men and women into space for fun can help save the planet when he attends the Copenhagen Summit later this week.

In the meantime, all they and Sir Richard could do was eat, drink and be merry. Even that wasn’t quite straightforward: high winds and an unseasonably cold bout of weather meant guests were spent the entire day shivering. Around 8pm, one of the vast marquees, which held a cocktail bar made from ice, had to be evacuated, ending the party several hours early.

As they rushed to board buses back to Los Angeles, the “future astronauts,” many of whom were forced to leave behind coats and handbags in the cloakroom, could have been forgiven for complaining that organising a successful cocktail party shouldn't be rocket science. But in this case, they would of course have been wrong.

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