Commercial space travel to take flight?

Pack up your Tang. Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and a Paul Allen venture aim to send tourists to the stars.

Sir Richard Branson hopes his new company will be the first to send adventurous tourists into space.

The high-flying entrepreneur announced Monday that the Virgin Group, his amassing of airline, entertainment and telecommunications companies, has entered into a technology licensing agreement with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Mojave Aerospace Ventures. Under the deal, Branson's Virgin Galactic plans to become the first business venture to carry commercial passengers on space flights.

"We've always had a dream of developing a space tourism business, and Paul Allen's vision, combined with (aircraft designer) Burt Rutan's technological brilliance, have brought that dream a step closer to reality," Branson said in a statement.

Virgin Galactic will privately fund the building of spaceships and related equipment, as well as operate the tourism company. The company is expected to open early next year, with the first flights operating in 2007.

Space tourists, who are expected to receive at least three days of preflight training, will pay approximately $190,000 each to travel toward the stars in a two-hour trip aboard the "VSS Enterprise." The company said it plans to begin taking deposits early next year and is now accepting registrations for prospective astronauts.

The technology licensing deal may be worth up to $21.5 million over the next 15 years for Mojave Aerospace, depending on how many spaceships Virgin builds. Over the next five years, Virgin anticipates 3,000 astronaut tourists will be trained.

Mojave Aerospace funded the development of SpaceShipOne, which was designed by Rutan and his company Scaled Composites. Allen said he wanted to create a reusable spaceship when he hired Rutan to build his first ship.

Last June, SpaceShipOne became the first privately manned spacecraft when Mike Melvill piloted it 62 miles into the atmosphere on a test flight.

Virgin Galactic's announcement comes just before SpaceShipOne takes off from the Mojave Desert with the goal of winning the Ansari X Prize. Started in 1995, that prize is intended to bestow $10 million on the first private venture to send a spacecraft into the suborbital altitude of 100 kilometers, land it, and then repeat the feat within two weeks.

The SpaceShipOne team, led by Rutan and partially funded by Allen, is planning to formally launch its first flight Wednesday morning. If everything works out, the team will launch again on Oct. 4 to win the prize.

Rutan has worked with Branson before, during an attempt to set a world record for the first solo nonstop, non-refueled circumnavigation of the world.

CNET News.com's Jim Hu contributed to this report.

 

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