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Now Virgin to offer trips to space


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Branson with a model of the Virgin Galactic spaceship.
start quoteThe orbital hotel will happen.end quote
-- Richard Branson
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British entrepreneur Richard Branson has announced his company has signed a deal to offer the world's first commercial flights to space under the branding "Virgin Galactic."

Branson, head of the Virgin Atlantic airline, said Monday that passengers in groups of five could be sent into orbit by 2008 at around £110,000 ($200,000) a trip.

The businessman -- who also heads Virgin trains in the UK -- revealed his outer-space business venture, potentially worth £14 million ($25 million), during a press gathering at the Royal Aeronautical Society in Central London.

The licensing deal could be worth millions over the next 15 years depending on the number of spaceships built by Virgin.

Prices for each seat are expected to start at £110,000, including three days' flight training. Virgin says that up to 3,000 astronauts could be flying high in space over a five-year period.

The space trips would last between two and three hours -- though for the £110,000 there would be just four to five minutes of weightlessness.

CNN's Jim Boulden says, however, that the plan is not just "pie in the sky" -- Branson's companies plan to invest $100 million in the project.

The space flights would be the safest early space flights, Boulden says -- safer than the space shuttle though not as safe as flying in a Boeing 747.

Branson said the money raised in the early part of the business would be ploughed back to bring the cost of seats in space down.

He told the news conference: "We hope to create thousands of astronauts over the next few years and bring alive their dream of seeing the majestic beauty of our planet from above, the stars in all their glory and the amazing sensation of weightlessness.

"The development will also allow every country in the world to have their own astronauts rather than the privileged few."

He was flanked by aviation legend Burt Rutan, who developed the spaceship design, SpaceShipOne.

SpaceShipOne cracked the barrier to manned commercial space flight in June by flying 98,547 meters (328,491 feet) above Earth.

The height is just over 120 meters (400 feet) beyond the distance scientists widely consider to be the boundary of space. The entire flight lasted 90 minutes.

The voyage hit the headlines as the world's first privately manned space flight. The spaceship will take part in the Ansari X Prize flight competition later this week.

The competition was set up to encourage private entrepreneurs to build spaceships.

Branson's licensing deal is with Mojave Aerospace Ventures (MAV), owned by U.S. entrepreneur Paul Allen. Allen funded the SpaceShipOne project, designed by Rutan and built by Rutan's company Scaled Composites.

In a separate agreement, MAV is close to finalizing a deal with Rutan to use the technology to build spaceships to carry paying passengers on return journeys to the stars for two hours.

"Virgin Galactic will be run as a business, but a business with the sole purpose of making space travel more and more affordable," Branson said.

"Those privileged space pioneers who can afford to take our first flights will not only have the most awesome experience of their lives, but by stepping up to the plate first they will bring the dream of space travel for many millions closer to reality."

Branson plans to be aboard the inaugural flight and said the project could lead to further space-related projects.

"The orbital hotel will happen," he told reporters.


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