- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

LONDON — Airline mogul and adventurer Richard Branson announced plans yesterday to boldly go where no private transport company has gone before: into space.

Mr. Branson’s Virgin Group said it would offer commercial spaceflights by 2007, with Mr. Branson himself joining the inaugural journey.

The bid is a natural for Mr. Branson, a high school dropout turned flamboyant tycoon, who has made several failed attempts to circle the world by hot-air balloon.

“It’s just the kind of thing he absolutely loves, because it gets him maximum publicity,” said David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine. “But the technology is there; it’s plausible.”

Mr. Branson, 54, announced a deal to license technology from Mojave Aerospace Adventures, the firm owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen that bankrolled June’s historic 90-minute spaceflight by the aircraft SpaceShipOne.

The Virgin craft will be based on Burt Raton’s design for SpaceShipOne, a stubby rocket-plane capable of carrying a pilot and two passengers.

“Virgin has been in talks with Paul Allen and Burt throughout this year, and in the early hours of Saturday signed a historical deal to license SpaceShipOne’s technology to build the world’s first private spaceship to go into commercial operating service,” Mr. Branson told reporters in London.

SpaceShipOne cracked the barrier to manned commercial spaceflight in June by taking a 90-minute flight almost 62 miles above Earth, just beyond the distance scientists widely consider to be the boundary of space.

Virgin said its agreement with Mojave Aerospace could be worth up to $25 million in the next 15 years, depending on the number of spaceships it builds.

The company said it planned to begin construction of the first vessel, VSS Enterprise, next year. It will invest about $108 million in spaceships and ground infrastructure for the venture, it said.

The new service will be called Virgin Galactic and expects to fly 3,000 new astronauts in its first five years. Fares will start at $208,000 for a two- to three-hour suborbital flight, including three days’ training.

“I hope with the launch of Virgin Galactic and the building of our fleet of spacecraft that one day children around the world will wonder why we ever thought that space travel was a dream we read about in books,” Mr. Branson said.

The only space tourists to date are U.S. businessman Dennis Tito and South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth, who each paid $20 million for journeys to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket.

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