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TED: Branson's Virgin Galactic up in 2009

MONTEREY, CALIF.--Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group empire, laid out a timeline for the launch of his Virgin Galactic suborbital spacecraft here at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference this past weekend.

Even though Virgin Galactic executives have said they expect the company to be first to take a group of tourists into space in 2008, it looks like 2009 is a better bet.

SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic's spacecraft, "will be ready in 12 months. Then we'll do 12 months of extensive testing," Branson said during an interview on stage at the conference. "So in 24 months, people will be able to take a run into space."

(The Virgin Galactic Web site says that the spacecraft will go up in early 2009.)

Among the first 150 passengers will be Superman Returns film director Bryan Singer, an unidentified member of the British royal family, and designer Philippe Starck. Branson commissioned Starck to design the Virgin Galactic logo and some of the interior of SpaceShipTwo. Passengers have reportedly paid as much as $15 million to take a trip into suborbital space for 15 minutes, with five minutes of weightlessness.

Surely the high-profile passengers on the first Virgin Galactic voyage want everything to be in order before taking off. Even Branson, who's known for his risk-taking adventures on balloons and boats, said safety is paramount in development of SpaceShipTwo, which is being built by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.

A first-timer at TED, Branson said the confab had been great. He was particularly glad to see actress Goldie Hawn two years after an unfortunate incident they had at a dinner. At the time, Hawn was wearing a large wedding ring that Branson tried on and then couldn't get off his finger. "The next day I had to get it cut off. Apologies to Goldie."