Branson says space tourism is three years away
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: October 4, 2004
MOJAVE, Calif. - British businessman Richard Branson, president of the Virgin Group and one of the world's most recognized entrepreneurs, said today he hopes to begin carrying space tourists on sub-orbital flights in just three years.
On hand to watch Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne win the $10 million X Prize by completing its second sub-orbital flight in just five days, Branson said Virgin's website had received more than five million "hits" since he announced a partnership with Rutan last week in London.
"We've got a lot of real tickets sold," he told reporters today. "We've had about five million hits on the internet of which 5,000 people said they'd be willing to pay the kind of money we're talking about."
Initial flights aboard a Rutan-designed spacecraft capable of carrying five passengers will run around $190,000. Trevor Beattie, a well-known advertising personality in Britain, has already booked a flight.
"I think anyone who had the chance to go would want to go," he said today. "Well, I've got the chance to go because of my profession and because of Richard."
Medical requirements for passengers are not yet set, but Branson said his 87-year-old father wanted to go and "there's no reason why somebody who's relatively fit at age 90 shouldn't be able to go. My son wants to go."
In London last week, Branson and Rutan said they both planned to take off on the first flight carrying space tourists.
"I absolutely have to develop a manned space tourism system for Sir Richard Branson that's at least a hundred times safer than anything that's ever flown man into space and probably a lot more," Rutan said today. "I have to do that."
While the initial price of a ticket is clearly beyond the reach of the middle class, the 7 UP company today announced a promotional contest next year that will give away at least one ticket. But in the long run, Branson said, re-investment and maturing technology will drive the cost down to more affordable levels.
"The initial price will not be cheap, I think it will be about $190,000," he said. "But in time, I think we can bring those prices dramatically down. I personally like the challenge, I like the idea of going into space. It's something I've dreampt about since I was a child. I believe there are millions and millions of people around the world who have also dreampt about it."
A new Branson company, Virgin Galactic, has licensed the technology behind Rutan's SpaceShipOne through Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a company owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Allen pumped more than $20 million of his own money into Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, to build SpaceShipOne and to compete for the X Prize.
Branson said Rutan has promised to build five spacecraft, each capable of carrying five passengers, over the next three years. The new spacecraft will carry tourists well beyond the 69-mile altitude of SpaceShipOne's record breaking flight, providing passengers with up to seven minutes or so of weightlessness.
"The plan is that the spacecraft will be bigger than SpaceShipOne," Branson said. "It will have five passengers and every one of those passengers will have a much, much bigger window, a spectacular view. It'll be the most beautiful thing ever created by man."
Flights initially will be staged from Mojave, where Scaled Composites is based, but "if it goes well, we'd love to have one based in Australia, one maybe based in Japan, one based in Europe and maybe one based in South Africa or Africa somewhere," Branson said.
"It's an adventure where we hope to make money because I don't think space has a future unless people make money," Branson said. "And the money we make will all be plowed back into developing space travel further. We believe the one person in the world who can take us forward is Burt Rutan and his team. We will be investing in that team."
As for the risks involved and the always present possibility of a fatal mishap, Branson said he's confident the infant manned spaceflight industry will endure.
"We as a transportation company have transported 400 million people on planes and trains and have never had an incident," he said. "We're going into this with the team of people that we think are most likely to deliver us a spacecraft that will be secure and will be safe.
But, he said, "there is a possibility that at some time in the future, with a lot of companies competing in this sector, that there could be an incident. But it shouldn't deter people. You've got to carry on investing and learn from these things. I don't believe Burt Rutan's team will have a problem. But nothing is guaranteed."