Sir Richard Branson's space programme 'months away' from lift off

Sir Richard Branson has claimed his latest venture Virgin Galactic is just "months away" from launching its ambitious space programme.

The 63-year-old entrepreneur whose interests have spanned music, media and aviation, hopes the business will take ordinary people into space for the princely sum of £130,000.

So far about 700 people have bought tickets, including Ashton Kutcher and Stephen Hawking.

"We hope to transform the way people live," he said. "Only 500 people have been up in space so far and we believe we can do that in our first year. We also want to pioneers planes that could eventually transport people from London to Australia in two hours.

"Stephen Hawking wants us to colonise the moon or Mars … that could eventually happen. As could a hotel in space."

Sir Richard's bold claims were made at the Institute of Directors annual convention in London yesterday, where topics of conversation focused on more earthy matters.

Earlier in the day, Santander UK boss Ana Botin vowed to support the "champion companies" which she claimed will boost growth across the UK economy. Ms Botin said local relationship managers at the bank were committed to helping small and medium-sized enterprises grow, but warned policymakers they must not over-regulate banks.

"The spirit of enterprise, innovation and ambition is what made Britain great," she said. "Entrepreneurs are the ones who drive the economy forward.

"Helping companies like these realise their growth potential – and go from small to medium size – is critical to restoring sustainable, long-term growth to the UK economy."

Her comments will be welcomed across the country given that many businesses still complain they cannot get bank funding. Santander is one of the UK's largest lenders.

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