British billionaire Richard Branson on Thursday unveiled a prototype design of the first spacecraft to be used by his Virgin Galactic space tourism service.
"We hope to enable millions of people to go into space in an affordable manner," the founder of the Virgin Group said in New York after he took the wraps off of a full-scale model of SpaceShip Two at Wired magazine's NextFest conference.
The ship, designed to carry six passengers and two pilots, will ascend to an altitude of about 60,000 feet on a carrier named White Knight Two, then detach and rocket into space at nearly four times the speed of sound.
Would-be space tourists can buy a $200,000 US ticket for a 2Â½ hour sub-orbital flight during which they will experience zero-gravity, Virgin Galactic promises.
Despite the price — which is much cheaper than the $20 million reportedly paid by space tourist Anousheh Ansari for her recent flight on a Russian rocket — the company already has 200 passengers registered, with 65,000 more people signed up as potential customers.
The vehicle is designed by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites LLC and based on the company's SpaceShip One design. In 2004, SpaceShip One captured the $10-million US Ansari X-Prize for being the first private manned ship to reach space twice in a span of two weeks.
Rutan and Branson inked a deal last year to form The Spaceship Co., which will manufacture and sell personal spacecraft.
Virgin Galactic plans to launch about one flight a week starting in 2009, first from Mojave, Calif., and later from the private Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The tourism service could launch a new wave of high-speed global travel, Branson said.
"We expect people to go from London to Australia in half an hour, or from Los Angeles to London in half an hour. We believe that in the next 10 years, that should be possible," Branson said.