Sir Richard Branson has unveiled the new Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo as the company pushes ahead in the race to send passengers into space.
The big reveal of the newest spacecraft took place in California on Friday at a ceremony attended by Branson and his family, Virgin Galactic’s future astronauts, and partners.
Professor Stephen Hawking named the new vehicle Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Unity via a recorded speech.
“I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship,” Hawking said.
Designed to take thrillseekers into space, seats on the ride, which can carry six passengers at a time, will cost $US250,000 ($A349,550), with more than 700 people said to have signed up for the journey so far.
“Together, we can make space accessible in a way that has only been dreamt of before now, and by doing so can bring positive change to life on Earth,” Branson said.
“Our beautiful new spaceship, VSS Unity, is the embodiment of that goal and will provide us with an unprecedented body of experience which will in turn lay the foundations for Virgin Galactic’s future.”
SpaceShipTwo’s arrival signals a return to testing for Virgin Galactic, the arm of the tycoon’s empire that hopes to be the first to take tourists on trips into space.
Sir Richard told UK TV show Good Morning Britain before the launch that people “expect companies like Virgin to push forward”, and after Friday’s unveiling, rigorous testing would take place over the next 12 months.
He said “hopefully” they were “nearly at the end of a 10-year program” to get Virgin Galactic this far.
“We will send people to space once pilots have tested the ship time and time and time again,” Sir Richard told the ITV show.
In 2014, the commercial space program suffered a setback when one pilot was killed and another seriously injured during a test flight of the prototype space tourism rocket.
Just more than a year since the death, he told GMB: “Obviously it was a horrendous day when it happened and I must admit we had moments where I questioned if we should carry on.
“Talking to engineers and astronauts and family members and the public, we got all the feedback and it was apparent there was no way we could stop.
“NASA had issues in its time. It is part of the process of trying to achieve things that we have not before.”
The team behind the latest suborbital spaceplane includes leaders from NASA’s mission control and astronaut corps, the militaries from three nations and from the top flight of the aviation and transport industries.
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