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The 'commercial era of space travel' begins

MOJAVE, Calif. — The sleek, bullet-shaped spacecraft is about the size of a large business jet — with wide windows and seats for six well-heeled passengers to take a ride into space.

It's billed as the world's first commercial spaceship, designed to be carried aloft by an exotic jet before firing its rocket engine to climb beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Monday, Virgin Galactic took the cloak off SpaceShipTwo, which had been under secret development for two years. The company plans to sell suborbital space rides for $200,000 a ticket, offering passengers 21/2;-hour flights that include about five minutes of weightlessness.

"We want this program to be a whole new beginning in a commercial era of space travel," said Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, who partnered with famed aviation designer Burt Rutan on the venture.

The British billionaire hopes to begin passenger flights out of New Mexico sometime in 2011 after a series of rigorous safety tests. Branson said he, his family and Rutan will be the first to fly on SpaceShipTwo.

SpaceShipTwo's debut marks the first public appearance of a commercial passenger spacecraft. The white, stubby-winged spaceship sat in a Mojave Desert hangar, where it had been attached to the jet that will carry it to launch altitude.

An official rollout for potential space tourists, dignitaries and other VIPs happened later Monday. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson were expected to christen the ship the "Enterprise."

SpaceShipTwo is based on Rutan's design of a prototype called SpaceShipOne. In 2004, SpaceShipOne captured the $10 million Ansari X Prize by becoming the first privately manned craft to reach space.

Since that historic feat, engineers from Rutan's Scaled Composites LLC have been laboring in the Mojave Desert on a larger design suitable for commercial use.

Some 300 clients have paid the $200,000 ticket or placed a deposit, according to Virgin Galactic.

"NASA spent billions upon billions of dollars on space travel and has only managed to send 480 people," Branson said. "We're literally hoping to send thousands of people into space over the next couple of years. We want to make sure that we build a spaceship that is 100 percent safe."