Mojave, California: Richard Branson unveiled a commercial spaceliner offering tourists a cheaper chance to experience the thrill of weightlessness and view the splendour of the Earth from space.
The British billionaire hopes to offer tickets aboard his spacecraft at a cost of 200,000 dollars each, giving adventurous, well-heeled travellers a chance to experience space for a fraction of the cost of a seat on a NASA shuttle or Russian spaceship.
Announcing the roll-out of the Virgin Galactic spaceliner in California`s Mojave desert, Branson said he planned to be on the craft`s first passenger flight some 18 months from now, accompanied by his family and the American designer of the space ship, Burt Rutan.
The craft is composed of two parts -- the SpaceShipTwo and the WhiteKnightTwo, the prototype of which has been dubbed Virgin MotherShip Eve in a tribute to Branson`s mother.
The futuristic-looking craft emblazoned with the image of a young woman that represents Branson`s mother Eve diving through space, resembles two jet aircraft joined together at their wing tips.
The White Knight will transport the two-pilot, six-passenger SpaceShipTwo high above the Earth where the space pod will break away and propel beyond the atmosphere.
"It is attached to the mothership in the middle and when the mothership gets up to 60,000 feet, the spaceship will drop away," Branson said of SpaceShipTwo.
"They will ignite the rocket and it will go from zero to 2,500 miles per hour in 10 seconds, so a real rush," he said.
Passengers aboard the SpaceShipTwo will be able to remain strapped in and view the Earth from portholes next to their seats, or unbuckle and experience weightlessness, once the craft passes beyond the atmosphere.
"This is a very big space ship so you have got a lot of room to float around, lots of windows to look out," Branson said.
"There will be two astronauts at the front, but the six passengers will be astronauts by the time they are finished," he added.
In an interview with CNN before the unveiling, Branson said the ship`s unusual design will allow it to return to Earth like "a giant shuttlecock."
"And so it literally feathers its way back into the Earth`s atmosphere so it doesn`t have the enormous heat buildup that some of the NASA spaceships have had in the past."
Branson said he had long dreamed of being able to offer trips into space.
"I think the idea came when I was sitting watching the moon landing many years ago," he said.
"I know there are literally thousands of people who would love to go to space, to be able to look out the window, to marvel at the beautiful Earth, and through Virgin Galactic we will make it possible."
Some 300 passengers have reportedly paid in advance for tickets on the spaceliner. They will be among guests invited to a VIP roll-out at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Even in the economic downturn, demand has been high for tickets aboard the first commercial space ship.
"The interest for flying into space is absolutely huge," said Pamela Hurley-Moser, who owns a travel agency accredited to sell Virgin Galactic tickets.
"The next available option is 45 million dollars with the Russians," she noted.
Interest has remained high even without a firm go date for the first trip.
The White Knight mothership completed a year of "rigorous and successful" first phase flight testing prior to the attachment of SpaceShipTwo and another period of intensive testing will follow.
SpaceShipTwo, which is built from carbon composite materials like the mothership, is to be powered by a hybrid rocket motor that is still under development.
But Branson said the unveiling "continues to provide tangible evidence that this ambitious project is not only moving rapidly, but also making tremendous progress towards our goal of safe commercial operation."
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson are to christen SpaceShipTwo with name Virgin Space Ship Enterprise.
New Mexico is building a space port in Upham, New Mexico with a 10,000-foot (three kilometer) runway that is scheduled to be completed by mid-2010.
SpaceShipTwo is a successor to SpaceShipOne, a single-seat suborbital spaceplane also designed by Rutan, which won the 2004 Ansari X-Prize for the first manned private spacecraft.
Rutan made aviation history in 1986 with the Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refuelling.