|UK's Branson to Launch Space Tourism in 2007
By Michael Smith
LONDON (Reuters) - Richard Branson, Britain's best-known entrepreneur and part-time daredevil, plans to launch the world's first passenger service to space in 2007, offering zero-gravity flights for $198,600.
British billionaire Sir Richard Branson holds a scale model of a spacecraft following a news conference in central London. Branson announced that Virgin Group would begin offering space flights in 2007 for groups of up to five passengers. Reuters
Branson, whose Virgin empire stretches from planes and trains to vodka, music and personal finance, is teaming up with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to build five, fish-shaped capsules for the two-to-three hour flights.
The flights will climb to about 130 kilometers, roughly six times higher than regular commercial planes, and include four minutes of weightlessness, views of the horizon from 1,200 miles away and possibly a gin and tonic if granted a liquor license.
"I'm over the moon," Branson told reporters. "As Richard Branson Astronaut rather than Richard Branson entrepreneur, my wife will find me even harder to live with."
Branson, whose headline-grabbing stunts have included attempts to fly around the world in a balloon or speed across the Atlantic in a powerboat, said he planned to take the inaugural flight on the "VSS Enterprise."
Virgin Galactic will be the latest offshoot of Branson's business empire, which started in mail-order recorded music in the 1970s. It will invest $100 million in ground infrastructure and spacecraft capable of carrying five passengers.
Branson said he planned to use the proceeds from the first well-heeled customers to bring prices down in the next few years to make space travel affordable to the regular tourist.
"The orbital hotel will happen," he said.
Virgin expects 3,000 customers in the first five years.
Experts said commercial space venture was long overdue and technically feasible but warned the initial price may be too high to attract enough spacefarers.
"The world is certainly ready, it is a question at what price? It is at the high end of what people in the sector felt is going to be attractive," Pat Norris, chairman of the Royal Aeronautical Society's Space Group, told Reuters.
Branson's Virgin Group will license technology owned by Paul Allen's company, called Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which developed the world's first private manned spaceship, SpaceShipOne. SpaceShipOne became the first private manned spaceship in June, when pilot Mike Melvill took it up 100 km.
The new spacecraft, designed by Burt Rutan who also hopes to join Branson on the flight, will be modeled around SpaceShipOne, a plump fish-shaped capsule with stout wings and several circular windows on the nose.
SpaceShipOne took off attached to a broad-winged mothership called White Knight, also designed by Rutan, and then launched like a cruise missile from the mothership on reaching 50,000 feet as its own engine ignited.
Rutan said the spacecraft would be safer than early commercial airline travel and flights would not be limited to the young and superfit.
"My father is 87, and I certainly want him to fly," Rutan told reporters.
The first flights will be launched from the Mojave Desert, but Virgin is looking at setting up more launch sites in Florida and offshore in Australia and Singapore if it can get permission to export the technology from the United States.
Space tourism already exists, though not as a scheduled service and only for the super-wealthy. U.S. entrepreneur Dennis Tito and South African businessman Mark Shuttleworth paid Russia some $20 million each for their rides to space. (Additional reporting by Jason Neely)