If Richard Branson turns up somewhere, you can be fairly certain there’ll be a photo opportunity attached. But Branson’s appearance on Monday at EAA Airventure, the world’s largest private air show, was more than a PR stunt. It also marked the first public flight of Virgin Galactic’s “Mothership” Eve, and signaled space tourism is now closer than ever.

The largest all-composite aircraft ever built, the twin hull VMS Eve (named after Branson’s mother) has the slightly bizarre appearance of two planes joined at the wingtip – Siamese planes, if you like. The aircraft is designed to carry SpaceShipTwo above 50,000 feet and then release it to blast into space at four times the speed of sound.

VMS Eve has already flown 16 times, logging over 50 hours and reaching altitudes above 52,000 feet, but this was Sir Richard’s first flight on the aircraft. Interestingly, the starboard hull is not pressurized, so would-be astronauts can get some G-Force experience, including zero gravity. The port hull, where Branson presumably traveled, is pressurized and can carry a range of payloads.

The successful public flight clearly inspired confidence in the business world, with the Abu Dhabi investment group Aabar shortly after committing USD$280 million to Virgin Galactic for an equity stake. Virgin Galactic also announced a small satellite launch service will soon be available from VMS Eve, making it an extraordinarily cost-effective way to get hardware into space.

Virgin Galactic expects that VMS Eve will make its first “captive carry” flight with SpaceShipTwo attached by the end of this year.