First came the global CEO. Now here comes the galactic one. How else to describe Richard Branson after his announcement that he’s forming a company that will offer passenger flights into suborbital space?
The iconoclastic founder, chairman and CEO of The Virgin Group is launching his latest enterprise-Virgin Galactic-with Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen and aviation pioneer Burt Rutan. Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, which took off from California’s Mojave Desert in June, was the first nongovernmental craft to enter space.
According to Branson, who says he’s pursuing a childhood dream, Virgin plans to invest as much as $108 million to buy five such spaceships, as well as the earthbound infrastructure required to support them.
The spacecraft will hurtle 80 miles into space, rising vertically and reaching Mach 1 (600 mph) in less than 10 seconds, ultimately traveling at three times the speed of sound. Each flight will last three hours, Branson says, and passengers will experience weightlessness for about four minutes. The cost of a ticket: $190,000.
If that sounds too pricey, don’t despair: If the program succeeds, Branson says, he will lower the fares enough to attract tens of thousands of people. “We hope to create thousands of astronauts over the next few years and bring alive their dream of seeing the majestic beauty of our planet from above, the stars in all their glory and the amazing sensations of weightlessness and space flight,” says Branson, who promises to reinvest all the money that Virgin earns from the flights back into the program.
Virgin Galactic predicts that 3,000 people will sign up for the pilot program. The flights are scheduled to begin in 2007. By that time, of course, Sir Richard may have moved on to the next galaxy.