White Knight Two - Eve

Sir Richard Branson's space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, provided a glimpse today of the completed mothership that it hopes will ferry adventuresome travelers to the fringes of space.

Unveiled this morning at a press conference in the Mojave Desert, the White Knight Two (WK2) aircraft--dubbed Eve after Branson's mother--features a twin cockpit construction with a space between the dual cabs for the passenger vehicle, called SpaceShipTwo. Once launched from the mothership, SpaceShipTwo is meant to treat tourists to several minutes of weightlessness as well as what Virgin Galactic says ought to be a spectacular view.

Burt Rutan*, a designer at Scaled Composites, the manufacturer that built Eve, the first of two WK2 designs to be completed, heralds the new ship as a big step forward in aeronautics. It is constructed out of lightweight carbon composites, which he and Branson say endow the craft with environmentally friendly fuel efficiency and versatility.

The $100 million white craft sports a B29-bomber- ("flying fortress"-) size wingspan of 140 feet (43 meters), and its four engines are designed to send it soaring as high as 50,000 feet. Once there, its payload, the SpaceShipTwo, will detach and climb to over 60 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth for those aforementioned views.

The Virgin Galactic space program has encountered some problems in building its aircraft, though, and the company and Scaled Composites have admitted that risks will remain for customers. Rutan has said publicly that SpaceShipTwo will be "one hundred times safer than any previous manned space system," which is hardly a guarantee of absolute safety. And tragedy has already struck once: An explosion at the Scaled Composites factory last July killed three employees who were working on SpaceShipTwo's engine.

Nevertheless, about 250 thrillseekers (including wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking) have already ponied up $200,000 to reserve a seat on the spacecraft. An official launch date has not been announced, but the company says it hopes to have WK2 aloft with its first complement of newfound astronauts perhaps as early as next year.

image credit: Virgin Galactic

*Note: The spelling of Burt Rutan's name has been corrected.