British airline magnate Richard Branson has announced a hugely ambitious plan for the world’s first commercial space flights, saying he would send “thousands” of fee-paying astronauts into orbit in the next five years.
Branson, a flamboyant communicator and high-profile tycoon, said his Virgin Atlantic airline had signed a technology licensing deal with the US company behind SpaceShipOne, which in June became the first private manned craft to travel to space.
Addressing reporters in central London, Mr Branson said that the new firm – Virgin Galactic – would launch its maiden flight in only three years, and that he would join the very first trip into space.
“Within five years, Virgin Galactic will have created over 3,000 new astronauts from many countries,” Mr Branson said, speaking alongside US aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, who designed and built SpaceShipOne.
“Many of these countries will have not had the funds to date to compete with the government-funded space programs of the superpowers,” he said.
“We plan to construct launch pads for commercial space travel in a number of countries over the next few years.”
Such a vastly ambitious plan is typical of the 54-year-old serial entrepreneur, who first made a fortune with the Virgin pop record label before branching out into air travel, railways and a string of other ventures.
Virgin has signed an agreement worth 14 million pounds ($AU35 million) with Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which owns the technology behind SpaceShipOne, it announced.
Would-be space tourists will pay fees starting at 115,000 pounds ($AU291,000) and receive three days of flight training before embarking on the real trip.
In a near-messianic speech, Mr Branson pledged that his principal aim was to make space travel possible for ordinary people.
“Virgin Galactic will be run as a business, but as a business with a sole purpose of making space travel more and more affordable to people throughout the world,” he said.
“We will re-invest the funds raised over the first few years of flight back into the business, striving constantly to lower prices.”