/ 9 December 2009

Branson hails SpaceShipTwo ‘the sexiest spaceship ever’

If this was the start of the second space age — as Sir Richard Branson and a cohort of enthusiastic fans insisted — then someone forgot to inform the weatherman.

As Britain’s most visible showman-entrepreneur unveiled his latest creation in the southern California desert on Monday night — a giant fantasy of a flying machine that promises to take tourists out of the Earth’s atmosphere into outer space as soon as 2011 — everything was in place for the aviation equivalent of a glitzy Hollywood premiere.

Branson had the klieg lights, and the sound system booming eerie space-age music, and the hospitality tents doling out free champagne and vodka cocktails right on the runway of the Mojave air and space port.

He even had ”celebrity” guests — everyone from Victoria Principal of Dallas fame to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California — and he had countless stunning young women draped across the arms of tech geeks and engineering whizzes and assorted zillionaires, some of whom had flown halfway across the world to watch a little piece of history in the making.

What he didn’t have, though, was the kindness of the elements. The temperature hovered somewhere just above freezing. Driving rain gave way to howling winds of 80km/h and even the occasional flurry of sleet and snow. The plastic-sheet ceiling of the marquee tent, where 800 dignitaries and guests gathered for the grand roll-out, flapped angrily in the wind, causing chandeliers and heavy speaker systems to sway dangerously.

Throughout the proceedings, as one speaker after another sought to pay homage to the (as yet untested) engineering marvel that is SpaceShipTwo, champagne glasses teetered and crashed dramatically to the ground.

Branson himself joked about the absence of a heating system — he said he had originally questioned whether the organisers even needed a tent — leaving some of the natural worriers in the audience to wonder what problems might still remain with the spacecraft itself. The warm welcome he extended could not hope to stop the chattering teeth or ease the pain of deep-chilled bones.

Still, the VIP guests and ”future astronauts” – the 300 or more people who have pledged $200 000 each for a place on board SpaceShipTwo and the chance to boldly go where only a handful of professional space travellers have gone before — were nothing if not gracious.

They rippled with excitement at the sight of Burt Rutan, the engineering genius who figured out how to build a craft that could re-enter the atmosphere ”carefree” without the need for nerve-rackingly precise piloting by either humans or computers. They rushed around Brian Binnie, one of the pioneering pilots who penetrated the atmosphere aboard Rutan’s SpaceShipOne back in 2004, as though he were Tom Cruise, or Robert Pattinson.

When the engineering team — a line-up of aerodynamic and machine specialists with dishevelled hair, smudged glasses and poorly fitting jeans — was introduced as ”rock stars”, they got the reception to match.

Schwarzenegger also did his best to make light of the freezing conditions, making one crack after another at the expense of Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor who has agreed to let Branson’s Virgin Galactic company build its purpose-built Spaceport in the desert south of his state.

”We have many things in common,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. ”We are both governors. Both of us plan to retire next year. And neither of us has ever won an Oscar.”

He even made a dig at Richardson’s waistline, saying he knew how excited the future astronauts were to be able to experience the weightlessness of outer space. ”Nobody is happier than Bill Richardson about that,” he said.

By the time the great unveiling rolled around, almost nobody had any appetite to step outside and watch. But go they did anyway — to admire the pools of purple light, the bad synthesiser music, the thumping drumbeat and, finally, the burst of white light cast over both SpaceShipTwo and its expansive carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo.

”This is the sexiest spaceship ever!” Branson declared, mustering what must have been his last few drops of enthusiasm.

Schwarzenegger and Richardson each broke a champagne bottle over the ship’s nose, bestowing upon it the name VSS Enterprise (pure Star Trek, as Virgin Galactic acknowledged), then retreated as fast as protocol would allow them.

”Right,” Branson said as soon as they had gone, ”let’s all get a drink.” – guardian.co.uk