biz-907280301-ar-0-0.jpg
WhiteKnightTwo follows two photos planes as it circles Monday, July 27, 2009 above the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual AirVenture convention in Oshkosh, Wis. British billionaire Sir Richard Branson hopes to use WhiteKnightTwo to carry a spaceship into the upper atmosphere. The spaceship would then detach and rocket into space. Branson hopes to use the system to create a commercial space travel business. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer) - AP

Final frontier

OSHKOSH, Wis. — Hundreds of earthlings turned their faces to the sky Monday to see an airplane built to launch a ship into space, watching the gleaming white craft soar overhead.

The twin-fuselage craft named WhiteKnightTwo, looking like two planes connected at the wing tips, circled the runway several times before touching down at the Experimental Aircraft Association's Air Venture annual gathering.

It was the first glimpse the public had of the plane, which was made by Virgin Galactic as part of its effort to jump-start commercial space travel. Its designers, engineer Burt Rutan and British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, watched and smiled from the edge of the tarmac.

It was "majestic," said 13-year-old Alura Law of Reddick, Fla.

Her mother, 45-year-old Kim Law, is blind but aimed her camera at the sound of the WhiteKnightTwo. She said it offers hope that scientific experiments in weightlessness might someday restore her sight.

"I'm ... real hopeful. Inspired," she said.

Virgin Galactic's plan calls for WhiteKnightTwo to lift SpaceShipTwo, a pressurized spacecraft, into the atmosphere from a base in New Mexico. When they reach 50,000 feet, the spaceship would detach and blast into space at four times the speed of sound.

The six passengers would experience about five minutes of weightlessness and get a glimpse of Earth. The spaceship would glide back to Earth much like the space shuttle. Take-off to landing is expected to take about 21/2; hours.

Virgin Galactic doesn't have a launch date yet, but has taken 300 reservations at $200,000 each and is holding $40 million in deposits. Customers include scientist Stephen Hawking and "Superman Returns" director Bryan Singer, according to Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn.

"Superman Returns" even features a sequence involving two aircraft much like WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. In the movie, Lois Lane boards a launcher jet with a space shuttle-like vehicle attached. The jet lifts the shuttle into the atmosphere, but the plane ends up plunging to Earth and Superman must race to save it.

Virgin Galactic officials say safety will be their "guiding star."

"We not only have to do it safely, we have to give (passengers) a good time," said Virgin Galactic's commercial director, Stephen Attenborough.

Share This Story