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Billionaire Branson Pushes Space Tourism a Step Further

Instead of swimming or hiking on your next holiday, why not try soaring through space? British entrepreneur Richard Branson's firm Virgin Galactic wants to make it happen, but opinions are divided.

Richard Branson presents a model of the Space Ship Two and its mother ship, the White Knight Two

Branson says Virgin Galactic's spaceships are a marvel of design

With the unveiling of his new space aircraft in California's Mojave Desert on Monday, July 28, Branson moved a step closer to his dream of operating the world's first commercial space airline.

"We're naming it Eve after my mother Eve Branson and because it stands for a first and new beginning," Branson said at the unveiling.

the German dpa news agency reported

Eve, which is also named White Knight Two, is the mother ship for the smaller Space Ship Two spacecraft, which is designed to be projected into sub-orbital space at about 100 km (60 miles) above the Earth.

Although Virgin Galactic's commercial space flights aren't set to take off until 2010, passengers can already book their tickets for $200,000 (approx. 136,000 euros). That buys them a two-hour flight and roughly four minutes floating in zero gravity.

Branson brings his typical optimism to the endeavor, and has been heard to rave that the design of the spaceship "surpasses all expectations for the future of commercial space flights."

Eve at the rollout

"Eve" will carry the smaller spacecraft to 50,000 feet

Virgin project causing a stir

The aircraft have been built by the Spaceship Company, a joint venture between Virgin and designer Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites group. The project is already creating a stir among German experts in space research.

"It would be my wish for as many people as possible to, sooner or later, have the opportunity to see our planet," said Thomas Reiter, chairman of the German Aerospace Center and the eighth German astronaut to have been in space. "I'm sure that such an experience would change the way we co-exist."

However, Reiter is not convinced that the current model from Virgin Galactic is ready for the mass market, pointing out that such a project is both extremely time consuming and expensive.

"It's a first step," he said. "Developing the model will take many years. I don't want to rule out a breakthrough in this area -- I would actually be really happy if there were one. But no one has managed it up until now."

Undeterred by any critical voices, Branson intends to start test flights of the White Knight Two this year. Though designer Rutan asserts that the aircraft is a hundred times safer than a traditional spaceship, there are still undeniable risks. A year ago, an explosion at the test site in the Mojave Desert killed three technicians.

Criticism from climate experts

Planet Erde

Passengers will be able to see the curvature of the Earth

Virgin Galactic has also reaped criticism from the environmental organization Greenpeace.

"From a climate protection point of view, we're against it," Christian Bussau, climate expert from Greenpeace Germany said. "The impact of the mother ship on the climate is equivalent to that of a long-haul flight, so we're getting a totally wrong signal from politicians. Normally, they tell us to conserve energy and reduce emissions -- and now we have this."

Still there's no denying the frisson of excitement surrounding the burgeoning field of space tourism. Some 250 people have already signed up for flights with Virgin Galactic -- though the maiden voyage has been reserved for Branson and his family.

Gereon Uerz, of the Essen-based research center Z punkt, says people have only just begun to think of the possibilities for space tourism.

"It could be that a few very rich people fly into space in the future," he said. "And if you then consider the long term, it could even be that they check into a hotel on the moon, or take place in a lunar excursion, or look for other settlements in outer space, if the Earth should no longer be inhabitable for us human beings. It's all pure speculation."

In any case, he says, the experience of space would be an enriching one for mankind.

"People who have been to space tend to have a strong awareness of Earth's fragility," Uerz said. "Our Earth is a small, blue, vulnerable planet that is in need of our protection."

Would you be willing to fly on Branson's spacecraft? Send us your opinion and please include your full name and country in your reply.

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