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Branson Plans Commercial Space Flights  - 2004-09-27

British airline magnate Richard Branson says his company will begin launching paying customers into outer space by 2007 on the world's first commercial space flights.

The British entrepreneur who established Virgin Atlantic Airways, Richard Branson, announced plans Monday for a commercial space venture, with financial and technical partners from the United States.

"Today is truly an historic day, for I think it will bring the dream of space travel for many millions closer to reality," Mr. Branson says. "Today, I am pleased to launch our new company, Virgin Galactic, and to announce our plans to build and launch, within three years, the first of Virgin's fleet of space ships, the VSS Enterprise, a spaceship designed to carry fare-paying passengers on a journey to the stars."

Mr. Branson says the first flights will take off from California's Mohave Desert and last about two or three hours. There will be five passengers aboard, and each ticket will cost about $200,000. All the seats, Mr. Branson joked, will be first class.

Mr. Branson's technical partner is Burt Rutan, who built the SpaceShipOne craft that in June became the first manned commercial vessel to go into outer space.

The project will have financial support from Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, whose company, Mohave Aerospace Ventures, bankrolled the SpaceShipOne venture.

SpaceShipOne is scheduled for two more launches in quick succession, one on Wednesday and another on October 4, in an attempt to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize. The award has been offered to the first private three-seat spacecraft to launch twice within two weeks. A single test pilot will fly SpaceShipOne, but it will be weighted as if three people were aboard.

Mr. Branson says an agreement was signed late Saturday with Mr. Allen and Mr. Rutan for Virgin to license SpaceShipOne's technology in a deal that could be worth up to $25 million over the next 15 years.

The British airline magnate said up to 3,000 passengers could fly to space during the first five years of the project, and he predicts that future ventures will establish a space hotel and a base on the Moon for paying customers.