Andrew Gombert / EPA
Tonight's Hollywood-style debut of the world's first commercial suborbital spaceship was a spine-tingling affair - and not just because of the historic occasion, the appearance by a movie star turned governor, or the ice-cold vodka served afterward. It was cold out here in California's Mojave Desert.
Virgin Galactic's unveiling of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane drew hundreds of paying space tourists and travel agents, rocket geeks and glitterati to the Mojave Air and Space Port. For a while, it looked as if stormy skies and brisk winds would force a change in Virgin billionaire founder Richard Branson's plans for an after-dark, outdoor debut.
But in the end, the spotlights went on and the music blared as scheduled, despite the near-freezing temperatures, the wind and the puddles of rain. SpaceShipTwo rolled down the runway, suspended from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson stepped out and smashed bottles of champagne - and Branson's daughter, Holly, officially gave the 60-foot-long craft its new name: the VSS Enterprise.
The name pays tribute to the sailing ships of old as well, to the fictional "Star Trek" starship - and to the idea that the craft will bring private enterprise into the world of space travel, said Virgin Galactic's president, Will Whitehorn.
SpaceShipTwo has been under development for years in a Mojave hangar at Scaled Composites - the company that built the craft's predecessor, SpaceShipOne, to win a $10 million prize for private spaceflight five years ago.
The aerospace guru behind both rocket planes, Burt Rutan, is known for playing his cards close to the vest - and today's unveiling marked the first opportunity for outsiders to get a close look at his latest brainchild. Rutan told the hundreds of onlookers assembled under a large plastic shelter that he considered himself "the luckiest guy in the tent."
Unlike Rutan, Branson is known for playing up the glitz game to market his ventures - and tonight's main event was a Virgin classic: Within minutes after the rollout, the tent was transformed into a lounge, complete with an ice bar, buffet and electronic music on the public address system.
Schwarzenegger, who left right after the christening, said he was tickled to be part of the event. "This here today is one of the coolest things I've ever done," Schwarzenegger told the crowd. Even his kids were jealous, he said.
Enterprise's unveiling marks the beginning of a new phase for Virgin Galactic, coming after last year's big reveal for SpaceShipTwo's WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane (dubbed "Eve" in honor of Branson's mother) and this year's successful series of rocket engine tests. "Virgin Galactic is now in the final stretch of becoming the world's first commercial spaceline," Branson declares in a promotional video.
Branson is spending an estimated $250 million to $400 million on his space venture, which will involve building at least six SpaceShipTwo planes and two WhiteKnightTwo motherships. The company already has signed up more than 300 would-be spacefliers, including actress Victoria Principal, Hollywood director Bryan Singer and 90-year-old enviro-theorist James Lovelock. Paralyzed cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who sampled zero-G two years ago, may eventually fly as well.
The price for a three-day space tour package, including training, is $200,000. That price is expected to come down as the space tourism market takes root.
Touring SpaceShipTwo's hangar
Is there really enough of a market for space travel to allow Branson to recover his investment? "To be perfectly honest, I'm not too worried if I make money or not," he told our NBC News crew during a tour of SpaceShipTwo's hangar in advance of tonight's ceremony. He said his prime concern was to create something he's proud of, and have faith that any venture that inspires his pride will end up attracting customers and making money.
Alan Boyle / msnbc.com
|Click for video: Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson chats with an NBC video crew Monday with SpaceShipOne's "Galactic Girl" hanging above them in a zero-G pose. Click on the image to watch NBC correspondent George Lewis' "Nightly News" report.
The rocketship, gleaming in Virgin Galactic's blue-and-black livery, sat mounted between the twin cabins of the Eve carrier airplane. Branson said the two planes were linked together for the first time just this weekend.
VSS Enterprise is emblazoned with an image of "Galactic Girl," a mascot who is modeled after Branson's mother as she looked in the 1940s, but floating in zero-G. The painting was done by one of her grandsons, Ned Rocknroll.
While we were there, Eve Branson, who admits to being near her 90s, stopped by to look at her likeness. "These are your belly-dancing days," Richard Branson joked.
"Could have made the boobs a little bit bigger," his mother said, grinning all the while.
"Never satisfied, never satisfied," the son replied.
Eve Branson said she was indeed satisfied, calling the likeness "marvelous" and congratulating her grandson, the artist. "Hey, if you put your grandmother on the side of a spaceship, you're all good," Ned Rocknroll said.
Richard Branson said he marveled to see the paired craft in their flight configuration. "I thought that I was dreaming. ... I hope it's not a dream. I hope it's real," he told us.
What SpaceShipTwo will do
SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to the edge of outer space, past the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude mark. The flight profile would provide about five minutes of weightlessness, a commanding view of a curving Earth below the black sky of space, and the world's highest roller-coaster ride going up and coming down.
Rutan has kept mum about his expectations for the flight schedule, but observers guess that 2011 or 2012 is the likeliest time frame for the start of commercial service. Between now and then, SpaceShipTwo is likely to go through scores of tests. Ground testing starts on Tuesday, Branson told us.
The first flight tests, due to begin next year, would involve captive-carry flights during which the rocket plane would ride between WhiteKnightTwo's twin cabins so that Scaled's team can check the aerodynamics of the combined craft. Then there would be drop tests, in which SpaceShipTwo would be released and piloted through a glide back down to Earth.
Eventually, the hybrid rocket motor would be added to the mix: SpaceShipTwo would light up its engine in a series of powered flights, climaxing with the full profile for commercial service. SpaceShipTwo would be dropped from WhiteKnightTwo at a height of 60,000 feet, blast off, rise to spaceworthy heights and go supersonic on the way down.
SpaceShipTwo uses the same "carefree re-entry" design pioneered by SpaceShipOne. During the peak phase of the flight, the wings fold forward in such a way that the craft stabilizes itself as it descends through the atmosphere, even without pilot intervention.
Concerns about safety
But testing isn't simply a case of "flown there, done that": The new rocketship has been scaled up to more than twice SpaceShipOne's 28-foot length, as shown in this comparative graphic from Virgin Galactic, and that could affect how the craft performs.
There's always the chance of suffering a setback during the test phase, as the Scaled Composites team knows all too well: In 2007, a nitrous-oxide tank exploded at Scaled's rocket test site, killing three of the company's employees. The tragedy caused significant delays in the SpaceShipTwo development effort.
During today's unveiling, Rutan said the standards for passenger spaceflight had to surpass the safety record achieved by government-run space programs. "That's why our program has been longer and more difficult than anticipated," he said.
Whitehorn, also laid special emphasis on safety. Like Branson and his family, Whitehorn hopes to get an early ride on the Enterprise, so he has a personal interest in conducting a thorough test program.
"We're not in a race to do this," he told me. "We have only one chance to get it right ... and many chances to get it wrong."
New Mexico's role
If the effort proceeds according to plan, the first commercial flights are likely to take place from New Mexico's Spaceship America, thanks to millions of dollars of state and local backing. That explains why Richardson as well as Schwarzenegger were on hand today.
The two governors ribbed each other during their pre-christening speeches. Schwarzenegger declared that California has been a leader in the aerospace industry, and added, "I guess New Mexico is always following in our footsteps."
When it was Richardson's turn, he talked up his state's role in the future of the space industry, and then turned to Schwarzenegger. "Governor, you should join me in going to space - but I want you to go first," he said.
Richardson said private spaceflight could spawn new economic activity not only for tourism, but also for research and industry. "I call on President Obama to embrace commercial space travel," he said.
In addition to carrying people, SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo could carry scientific experiments. WhiteKnightTwo is designed so that it could launch either the piloted SpaceShipTwo or an unpiloted rocket ("LauncherOne"). And SpaceShipTwo could conceivably bring up experimental packages, even during its testing phase.
Tonight, however, it was the tourists who were in the spotlight. Scores of customers who have already paid the full fare showed up to get their first close-up look at the craft they will someday take into space. Texas eye surgeon Carlos Manrique, a paid-up spaceflight customer who shivered along with me as the Enterprise rolled into view tonight, said he could hardly wait for the ride.
"It's not just about this," he said of the glitz that surrounded us. "It's about the adventure."
Update for 11:35 a.m. ET (8:35 a.m. PT) Dec. 8: The party broke up early: Guests were evacuated from the site of the rollout on shuttle buses at about 7:45 p.m. PT due to a high-wind advisory. Soon afterward, the tents at the site collapsed and were blown away. Amid the hubbub of the evacuation, some astronauts-to-be had to scramble to recover their personal items ... not always with success.
The confusion continued, along with the wailing winds, into the night. WhiteKnightTwo was moved to a protected location just outside its hangar, and partygoers congregated at the Mariah Country Inn and Suites while everything was sorted out.
The morning after was cold and breezy ... but there was nary a cloud in the desert sky. Eve and Enterprise were back safe inside their hangar, and Virgin Galactic's executives were relieved that everything worked out in the end with no injuries.
"Despite the insane weather conditions, SS2 did not fail to impress!" the company said in a Twitter update. Hyperbola's Rob Coppinger, who wasn't able to make the party, had a different take in his tweet about the wild night: "Congrats to the survivors!"
Update for 8 p.m. ET Dec. 9: Check out this amazing video of the ruins at the rollout site on the day after the wild night.
More about the debut of the Enterprise:
- Spaceflight Now: The rollout of SpaceShipTwo
- NewSpace Journal covers the rollout
- CollectSpace: Photos from Enterprise's desert reveal
- Space.com: Spaceliner makes public debut
- NBC video: Stephanie Stanton reports on rollout
Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto." If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."