NEW YORK—Within a few years, a handful of rich tourists may be blasting into space in a craft that looks a little like a cross between the space shuttle and a corporate jet.
British billionaire Richard Branson and the aerospace designer Burt Rutan unveiled a model Wednesday of SpaceShipTwo, the vehicle they hope will be able to take passengers on suborbital joy rides, sheerly for the fun of it, with test flights beginning as soon as this year.
"Breathtakingly beautiful," was Branson's assessment of the ship, which is now under construction at a hangar in the Mojave Desert.
Speaking to reporters at the American Museum of Natural History, the pair also showed off a model of the big, four-engine jet that will help launch the craft into space.
The twin-fuselage airplane, called the White Knight Two, will carry SpaceShipTwo high into the sky beneath a single 140-foot wing.
The spacecraft would then separate from the plane and rocket into suborbital space, where as many as six passengers and two crew members could unbuckle themselves and experience weightlessness and an unparalleled view before gliding back to Earth.
Passengers would get about 4 1/2 minutes of zero-gravity time, floating about a ship roughly the size of a Falcon 900 executive jet, before returning to their seats.
Will Whitehorn, president of Branson's space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, insisted the project is no pipe dream; construction on the White Knight Two is already more than 70 percent complete.
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The spacecraft looks decidedly different from its predecessor, SpaceShipOne, which earned Rutan's team a $10 million prize in 2004 by becoming the first privately built, manned rocket ship to fly into space twice in a span of two weeks.
SpaceShipOne was smaller, with just three seats, and looked remarkably like something Flash Gordon would have flown.