Space travel, until now the preserve of astronauts and cosmonauts, has been thrown open to the general public by maverick business tycoon Richard Branson of the Virgin Group. SpaceShip Two was unveiled to the world at the Mojave Spaceport, California, by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of California and Governor Richardson of New Mexico on 7th December, 2009 (the parts for the spacecraft are made in these two states).
SpaceShip Two (SS2), when harnessed to its carrier plane WhiteKnight 2 (WK2) looks like a flying specimen of the catamaran. The WK2 which is powered by Pratt and Whitney PW 308A engines can carry the spacecraft to 50,000 ft, where after its rocket fires it to outer space.
Built from carbon composite materials, the Virgin Galactic project team had very stringent emission targets to work with.
Sir Richard, as he is now addressed by virtue of his being knighted, has always had an eye for the unconventional. He commissioned the services of Burt Rutan, the iconic American aerospace engineer known for his out-of-the-box and futuristic aircraft designs. Rutan had designed SpaceShip One in 2004, the first privately built and financed craft to have flown into space. The SS2, which draws on the experience gained during the development of the SS1 in 2004, will be the first manned private space flight carrying six passengers and two pilots.
A jaunt on the SS2 is not for the faint hearted or the proletariat. The cost of a ticket to see our planet from outer space is not going to be cheap. Does that mean few takers? No way! There is a queue of people to get on board. There is no dearth of social wannabes who wish to acquire bragging rights to a trip into outer space, besides those who are genuinely curious to see what Earth looks like from Out There.
No doubt our planet, from outer space, appears far more benign and placid than what we know it to be!