Richard Branson, the daredevil British billionaire and owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways, said Monday that he was launching a commercial rocket service that would take well-heeled passengers for a suborbital ride into space.
The two-hour trip, including drinks and four minutes of weightlessness in space, is set to cost about $190,000.
Branson, meanwhile, will spend $100 million to buy five passenger rocket ships from Mojave-based aviation designer Burt Rutan for his Virgin Galactic space tourism business. He expects to launch the first flight in 2007.
"We hope to create thousands of astronauts over the next few years," Branson said, noting that he probably would be on the inaugural flight.
The spacecraft will hold five passengers, plus a pilot, and is to be modeled after Rutan's SpaceShipOne. In June, the squid-shaped rocket, piloted by Mike Melvill, became the first privately funded vehicle to carry a person into space as it soared to 328,941 feet, about 62 miles above Earth.
Branson said his commercial flights would climb even higher -- to nearly 70 miles, about 10 times as high as regular commercial airline flights. Passengers will be able to see the sky turn pitch black and see Earth spanning a thousand miles in each direction.
He estimated that over five years at least 3,000 people would pay the fare for what he called the trip of a lifetime, generating about $600 million in revenue.
Some analysts questioned Branson's latest venture, although they lauded him for his marketing acumen. A high school dropout, Branson became a billionaire by taking a record label and turning it into a conglomerate, Virgin Group Ltd., selling cellphones and soft drinks with the Virgin moniker.
"This is classic Richard Branson marketing, doing something really extreme and putting himself out there as innovator and forward thinker," said Frank Werner, a business school professor at Fordham University. "But whether it will actually happen, no one knows."
Branson's latest project is one of the more ambitious efforts in a flurry of private endeavors to turn space into a tourist destination.
After Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969, visions of orbiting hotels and space buses shuttling visitors soon occupied the imagination of many entrepreneurs. The defunct Pan American World Airways began taking reservations for future flights to the moon, and when the airline stopped taking reservations in 1971, 93,000 people had signed up, including Ronald Reagan.
Most commercial space ideas have failed, although two people bought their way into orbit in the last few years by paying $20 million each to ride in a Russian-built Soyuz. A modified Boeing 727 passenger jet this year also began offering rides at high altitude, but not in space, with a few minutes of weightlessness.
The possibility of making money from space tourism recently received a big boost when Rutan's passenger rocket reached the lower boundary of space. The feat was accomplished with a total investment of little more than $20 million -- a far cry from the billions spent by NASA to develop space vehicles.
Branson's announcement came as Rutan was preparing SpaceShipOne for its next flight in pursuit of the $10-million Ansari X Prize. The unusual prize is intended to spur the development of commercial spaceflight.
Private donors backing the prize include author Tom Clancy; businessman Dennis Tito, who bought a ride on a Soyuz spaceflight; and Charles Lindbergh's grandson Erik. To win, a craft must fly three people -- or a pilot and payload equal to the weight of two passengers -- into sub-orbit, return them safely to Earth, and then repeat the mission within two weeks.
SpaceShipOne's first attempt is slated for Wednesday at an airport in Mojave. A mother ship plane, with the spacecraft attached under a wing, will fly to about 46,000 feet. Then SpaceShipOne will be released before its engines are ignited, propelling the rocket into space.
Rutan, who built the Voyager aircraft that was flown around the world on one tank of fuel in 1986, plans a second spaceflight Monday, Oct. 4. It was on Oct. 4, 1957, that the Russians launched Sputnik I, setting off the Space Age and a race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to dominate space missions.
Vying for the X Prize are 26 teams in seven countries, but Rutan's craft will be the first planned flight. His project has been financed by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul G. Allen, and is also the only one that has a made successful test flight.
A rival Canadian team, with its Da Vinci Project, plans to launch a rocket from a high-altitude balloon and has set Oct. 2 as its first flight.