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.
On 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 was slated for later Monday. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson were expected to christen the ship "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."
The last time there was this level of hoopla in the high desert was a little more than a year ago when Branson and Rutan trotted out to great fanfare the twin-fuselage mothership, White Knight Two, that will carry SpaceShipTwo.
Despite the hype, hard work lies ahead before space journeys could become as routine as air travel.
Flight testing of White Knight Two has been ongoing for the past year. The first SpaceShipTwo test flights are expected to start next year, with full-fledged space launches to its maximum altitude in 2011.
SpaceShipTwo, built from lightweight composite materials and powered by a rocket engine, is similar to its prototype cousin with three exceptions. It's twice as large, measuring 60 feet long with a roomy cabin about the size of a Falcon 900 executive jet. It also has more windows including overhead portholes. And while SpaceShipOne was designed for three people, SpaceShipTwo can carry six passengers and two pilots.
"It's a big and beautiful vehicle," said X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, who has seen SpaceShipTwo during various stages of development.
Space travel has been limited so far to astronauts and a handful of wealthy people who have shelled out millions to ride Russian rockets to the International Space Station.
The debut of Branson's craft could not come sooner for the scores of wannabe astronauts eager to pay big money to experience zero gravity.
After SpaceShipOne's history-making flights, many space advocates believed private companies would offer suborbital space joyrides before the end of this decade. Virgin Galactic once predicted passengers could fly into space by 2007.
George Washington University space policy scholar John Logsdon called the milestones "measured progress." He was not surprised the commercial space industry is still in its infancy.
"Their business will collapse if they had an accident in one of the early flights. I'm sure they're being cautious," he said.
Tragedy struck in 2007 when an explosion killed three of Rutan's engineers during a routine test of SpaceShipTwo's propellant system. The accident delayed the engine's development.
Virgin Galactic plans to operate commercial space flights out of a taxpayer-funded spaceport under construction in New Mexico.
SpaceShipTwo will be carried aloft by White Knight Two and released at 50,000 feet. The craft's rocket engine then burns a combination of nitrous oxide and a rubber-based solid fuel to climb more than 65 miles above the Earth's surface.
After reaching the top of its trajectory, the craft will fall back into the atmosphere and glide to a landing like an airplane. Its descent is controlled by "feathering" its wings to maximize aerodynamic drag.
Virgin Galactic expects to spend more than $400 million for a fleet of five commercial spaceships and launch vehicles.
It's not the only player in the commercial space race. A handful of entrepreneurs including Amazon.com Inc. Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, computer game programmer John Carmack and rocketeer Jeff Greason are building their own suborbital rockets.