British tycoon Richard Branson on Monday unveiled a futuristic aircraft that will ferry tourists to the edge of the heavens as part of Virgin Galactic's much-anticipated space program.
The aircraft -- WhiteKnightTwo -- was rolled out for media and invited guests, including Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, at an early morning ceremony in the Mojave desert north of Los Angeles.
The high-altitude aircraft, also named "Eve" in honor of Branson's mother, will act as the mothership for the spacecraft Spaceship Two, which in turn will launch in midair and send two crew and six passengers hurtling into space.
The first flights of WhiteKnightTwo are expected to take place later this year, with Spaceship Two being attached for a maiden flight sometime in 2009.
Virgin Galactic is hoping to send its first paying customers into suborbital space some 110 kilometers above the Earth in 2010. The company has said more that more than 200 passengers have already signed up for the first flights, which will cost $200,000 each.
"The rollout of WhiteKnightTwo takes the Virgin Galactic vision to the next level and continues to provide tangible evidence that this most ambitious of projects is not only for real but is making tremendous progress towards our goal of safe commercial operation," Branson said in a statement.
Branson said the decision to name the launch vehicle after his mother reflected the pioneering spirit of his space tourism venture.
"We are naming it 'Eve' after my mother, Eve Branson, but also because it represents a first and a new beginning, the chance for our ever-growing group of future astronauts and other scientists to see our world in a completely new light," Branson added.
In an interview with CNN, Branson later said that he and members of his family would be among the first wave of space travelers, and admitted he expected to be nervous at take-off.
"I'm going up myself, and I'm sure my stomach is going to turn, my children, my parents are going up," Branson said.
"There's going to be an element of nervousness, but it will be I think the journey of a lifetime .. So, you know, you've got to have a little bit of nervousness. It's natural."
WhiteKnightTwo boasts a wingspan 43 meters and is the world's largest carbon composite aircraft, Virgin Galactic said.
With a maximum altitude of more than 15,240 meters, the twin-fuselage craft will be able to support up to four daily spaceflights, the company added.
WhiteKnightTwo was designed and built by Scaled Composites, a California-based aerospace company run by engineer Burt Rutan.
In July last year, three people were killed after a rocket being developed by the company in connection with the Virgin Galactic program exploded.
Branson described space exploration as an essential final frontier that could potentially help to manage global warming via the development of weather satellites, agricultural monitoring and climate science.
"I also believe that someday we will be able to use space as a source of energy for the planet, through solar power satellites, using the most sustainable source available -- our sun," Branson told the audience.© Wire reports