The privately-funded space company Virgin Galactic presented on Friday its new reusable spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.

The ceremony was attended by Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, who was congratulated by Professor Stephen Hawking and the Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.

SpaceShipTwo is the first vehicle to be manufactured by Virgin Galactic, which is owned by Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments PJS. The winged spacecraft is powered by a hybrid rocket motor and it has a comfortable cabin that was specially designed to offer a great experience for passengers.

Photo: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic
Sir Richard Branson, posing with all the Virgin Galactic team and the SpaceShipTwo. Photo: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic

Passengers will earn official astronaut status. Each of them will be able to view the Earth and the black skies of space. Professor Stephen Hawking named the new spacecraft Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Unity, which will be rigorously tested in the next months in Mojave, said Virgin Galactic in a press release Friday.

Sir Richard Branson, who owns a fortune of $5.1 billion, says that space can be accessible in a way that was never imagined before. On the other hand, Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides says that Virgin wants to open the space to people from all walks of life.

“Today’s milestone is big step toward that goal. Outer space is the province of all humanity, and we think it is about time that all of humanity has a chance to explore it: not just pilots but also painters, not just engineers but also everyday explorers,” he added in the ceremony.

Virgin is not alone in the race of space-commercial flights. Jezz Bezos, founder and creator of the private space company Blue Space, also aims to “democratize” space by taking tourists into orbit. Moreover, XCOR Aerospace, a rocket engine development company, is already building a suborbital spacecraft that will fly up to four times per day to space.

It is expected that Virgin will be the first private space company to carry humans to space. Celebrities like Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks and another 700 people have already bought $250,000 travel tickets, even when there is not an specific date of departure.

SpaceShipTwo 2014 crash

In October 2014 a previous SpaceShipTwo model crashed in California during a test flight. As a result one pilot died and another was injured. According to federal safety investigators, the accident was caused by a co-pilot error and Virgin Space, which did not previously took preventive measures for mistakes like the occurred.

CEO George Whitesides said on Friday to reporters that the announcement of the VSS Unity was a sign of resolve. He stressed that the company is committed to open the space frontier and become the first commercial space line.

Professor Stephen Hawking Message

The theoretical physicist and cosmologist sent an encouraging message to Virgin Space on Friday, saying that he wouldn’t have imagined before that he would be able to see the beautiful Earth from space. He also explained that the first commercial flights will be expensive, but over time, flying to space will be accessible for more and more people.

“Confined to Earth and in a wheelchair, how could I experience the majesty of space except through imagination and my work in theoretical physics. I never thought I would have the opportunity to see our beautiful planet from space or gaze outward into the infinity beyond,” he said on a recorded message.

Source: Virgin Galactic Press Release