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Space: British Tycoon Announces Ambitious Venture For Commercial Space Travel

British entrepreneur and adventurer Richard Branson -- known for placing his Virgin brand on everything from airplanes to trains -- wants to put his logo on a spaceship next. He says he has signed a deal that could put paying customers into space within the next five years. Called Virgin Galactic, the venture joins Branson's business know-how with the technology of Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the firm behind the first private manned voyage into space in June. Branson hopes that some 3,000 amateur astronauts could fly into space over the next five years.

Prague, 27 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "I hope with the launch of Virgin Galactic and the building of our fleet of spacecraft that someday, children around the world will wonder why we ever thought that space travel was just a dream we've read about in books or watched with longing in Hollywood movies."

That was British tycoon Richard Branson, announcing his new commercial space venture, Virgin Galactic, at a news conference in London today.

Each sub-orbital flight, preceded by three days of training, is expected to cost five customers around 170,000 euros ($209,000). Flights are expected to leave from the United States, last up to three hours, and include periods of weightlessness.

The Virgin transport, entertainment, and communications group signed an agreement with pioneering aviation designer Burt Rutan to build an aircraft based on Rutan's SpaceShipOne.

SpaceShipOne became the first private space flight in June by flying 100 kilometers above the Earth -- above the distance scientists widely consider to be the boundary of space.

"In the early hours of Saturday morning, [Virgin] signed a historical deal to license SpaceShipOne's technology to build the world's first private spaceship to go into commercial operating service," Branson said.

Branson said the new company intends to launch its maiden flight in three years, and added that he plans to be aboard the first trip himself. He said he has "dreamt of seeing the beauty of our planet from space" for many years.

In addition to his business savvy, Branson is known as an adventurer, having achieved a number of records in ballooning and other pursuits.

Branson said Virgin Galactic will be run as a business, but a business with the sole purpose of making space travel more affordable. He said plans call for building five spacecraft capable of soaring 130 kilometers above the Earth.

Space experts warn that Branson's plan, while technically feasible, is riddled with potential difficulties and unlikely to immediately begin a new era of mass space travel. French news agency AFP quoted Andre Balogh, a professor of space physics at London University's Imperial College, as saying that "space tourism is likely to remain an expensive business for a very long time."

SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan was standing beside Branson during today's press conference. Rutan said those involved in SpaceShipOne had always wondered about the future application of the technology.

"Throughout these three years of development on this research program, occasionally we'd wonder as to what will happen later," Rutan said.

Rutan's SpaceShipOne is a capsule with stout wings and several circular windows on the nose. The SpaceShipOne launch involves takeoff while attached to a broad-winged mother ship called White Knight, which was also designed by Rutan. It is then released like a cruise missile as the spacecraft's own rocket engines ignite.

SpaceShipOne is now aiming to win the so-called "X-Prize," a $10 million bounty on offer for sending a private craft capable of carrying three people into space twice.

SpaceShipOne is scheduled to fly again on 29 September, and then once more on 4 October.