Rutan and Branson make a giant leap for space tourism

Richard Branson celebrates at Mojave Air and Space Port as the VSS Enterprise makes its debut. About 300 people have paid $200,000 each to be among the first passengers to travel in space.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

On a wind-tossed desert night, the dream of space pioneers Richard Branson and Burt Rutan to bring space flight to everyone -- at least everyone who can afford it -- drew closer to reality when the pair unveiled the world’s first commercial passenger spacecraft.

To the strings of an ethereal soundtrack, as dreamlike purple lights played across the runway, the VSS Enterprise rolled into view at the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 95 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

Despite the bracing wind-chill factor, hundreds of people who had flown in from around the world to view the craft burst into cheers and applause.

“Isn’t that the sexiest spaceship ever?” shouted shaggy-haired British billionaire Branson.

Mock-ups of the design had been released earlier, but this was the first public glimpse of the much-anticipated craft.

The crowd that gathered for the event, which recalled the trippy music and dancing lights in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” could hardly have agreed more.

But then about 300 of them had already paid $200,000 each to be among Branson and Rutan’s first paying passengers on Virgin Galactic.

Referred to by Branson as future astronauts, they included Mario Ferrera, 41, a Portuguese businessman who was one of the first to sign up with the company five years ago.

“I want to be the first Portuguese to go to space,” he said.

L.A. resident Natasha Pavlovich, 31, a native of Serbia, was also one of the earliest ticket holders.

Like Ferrara, she wanted to bring pride to her native country, adding that she bought her ticket on credit and with the help of family.

“Serbs have gotten a bad name in the press,” she said. “I want to uplift all Serbs.”

In 2004, Rutan’s first craft became the first private spaceship to reach the edge of space, claiming the $10-million Ansari X Prize in the process.

Following that feat, Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Records, approached Rutan, an aerospace designer, tinkerer and visionary -- with a plan to build a passenger space plane.

In the ensuing years, Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, have worked on the project in the Mojave Desert amid an atmosphere of secrecy more befitting a new weapons system than a transportation vehicle.

Work on the VSS (for Virgin Space Ship) Enterprise has been marked by delay and tragedy.

In 2007, three of Rutan’s employees were killed and three seriously injured in an engine-test failure in Mojave.

But, according to Rutan, Branson never lost his enthusiasm for the project. “I’m grateful to Richard for sticking with us,” he said.

Calling to mind Lou Gehrig’s famous speech at Yankee Stadium, Rutan said: “I’m the luckiest man in the tent.”

At the unveiling, the spacecraft was attached to its carrier plane. The plane will carry the spacecraft and its six passengers and two pilots to an altitude of 50,000 feet before releasing it.

From there, a rocket motor will carry the craft the rest of the way to the edge of space -- about 325,000 feet, or 60 miles, from Earth. Passengers will be able not only to see the curvature of their planet but to experience weightlessness.

Rutan gave no specific date for the first passenger flights, but officials said Virgin Galactic hopes to begin testing early next year, with the first flights in 2011.

Among the dignitaries in attendance were Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who bantered with each other as though they were on the rubber-chicken circuit.

The craft was built in Schwarzenegger’s state, but it will conduct its operations from Richardson’s state, from a base outside Las Cruces called Spaceport America.

Noting that passengers will have four minutes of weightlessness, Schwarzenegger joked: “No one is more happy than Gov. Richardson about that.”

The more rotund Richardson laughed as hard as anyone, but then needled Schwarzenegger later: “Governor, you should join me in going to space, but I want you to go first.”

Branson said the name “Enterprise” was chosen both to honor the British and American navy ships that have borne the name and to evoke the famed, fictional “Star Trek” spacecraft.

When the event concluded, guests toasted each other with champagne, while outside stood a full-sized carved-ice statue of an Apollo astronaut.