Virgin Galactic Announces New Space Aircraft

Sir Richard Branson envisions a booming future for space tourism.

July 28, 2008— -- Hundreds of people flocked to the Mojave Air & Space Port in the desert north of Los Angeles today to see Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group, unveil plans for a spacecraft that he says will launch space tourism.

This flying machine is the brainchild of two aviation mavericks, Branson and aerospace designer Burt Rutan, whose innovation has brought the world a step closer toward space tourism for more than the super-rich.

"I saw the man walk on the moon and I wanted to go to space," Branson said. "But I realized it wasn't possible, so I built my own spacecraft."

Branson unveiled the lightweight high-altitude mothership that will one day carry a spaceship between its two fuselages. The spaceship will detach from the mothership, then rocket civilians into a low Earth orbit, allowing them to unbuckle and float in zero gravity for a few minutes.

"The first massive rush you are going to get is when the spacecraft floats away and then you get a rush," Branson said. "When you go into space, it's silent, then you unbuckle and become an astronaut."

In 2004, Branson and Rutan tested an earlier version of the spaceship, named SpaceShipOne, after making a few modifications on its predecessor, WhiteKnight.

In a competition, the aircraft flew higher than 328,000 feet and was the first commercial aircraft to reach space. Rutan won $10 million for the design accomplishment and joined forces with Branson to market the spacecraft commercially.

SpaceShipOne served as a prototype for the current model, which Branson and Rutan say will eventually carry tourists to space.

Though the WhiteKnightTwo mothership was unveiled today, the actual space craft it will carry was not. It was left shrouded in black cloth.

The mothership Branson showed off was named Eve, after his 87-year-old mother, who he said will be one of the first passengers to make the trip to space.

"It's just a wonder day," Eve Branson said. "Absolutely terrific."

As is typical for Branson and his Virgin airline empire, today's announcement pulled out all the stops. Branson popped bottles of champagne outside the mothership in front of the press. The jet is decorated with images of a blonde woman holding the Virgin company flag.

But, while the announcement today made the space jet sound both glamorous and exotic, there are a few obstacles, yet, before it can be launched into space.

The plane hasn't been worked on since last year, when three technicians were killed in an explosion while working on SpaceShipTwo's propulsion system.

However, Rutan said he expects the plane will fly very well, and his company, Scaled Composites LLC, honored the lost technicians in a ceremony held last week.

The price of a ticket will also limit the average American from leaving this galaxy. Hundreds of interested space tourists have lined up to be among the first space passengers, putting down a deposit of $200,000.

Virgin Galactic plans to eventually have five spaceships making two flights a day. The company goal is to fly 500 passengers to space within the first year, which would match the total number of people worldwide who have gone into space so far. However, the company did not release an official start date.

Branson said that the price of the space trip will eventually decrease, and he already envisions his next project: a hotel in space.

ABC News' Miguel Marquez contributed to this report.