Branson confirms he'll be aboard first Virgin space flight


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The Independent Online

With typical flair, Sir Richard Branson today announced that he and his children will be the first passengers when the Virgin Galactic space tourism programme begins.

Virgin boss Sir Richard and son Sam and daughter Holly are expected to be flying 60 miles up into space on the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) aircraft by the end of next year.

Today, Sir Richard joined around 120 other tourists who have signed up for the two-hour flights, at 200,000 US dollars (£128,000) a trip.

As the travellers and Sir Richard posed at Farnborough Air Show beside a replica of SS2, Sir Richard also announced that the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft that will help launch SS2 into space will also be used for a new launch vehicle - LauncherOne - which will take small satellites into space for around a tenth of the present cost.

The Virgin Galactic team said a number of companies were keen to use LauncherOne.

From a spaceport built in New Mexico, USA, by UK architect Lord Foster, WhiteKnightTwo will take the SS2, with six passengers and two pilots, to a point about 50,000ft (15,240m) up before the SST rockets into space.

Sir Richard and other passengers will be able to float around the cabin due to weightlessness before the SS2 effectively becomes a glider for its return to the spaceport.

Virgin Galactic announced today that a total of 529 people - including, it is believed, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie - have signed up for an SS2 trip.

This number now outstrips the 528 who have gone into space since Yuri Gagarin's first trip in 1961.

"Next year Holly and Sam will be joining me for a first voyage into space," Sir Richard told a packed media conference at Farnborough today.

He went on: "Going into space is a hard business. It keeps my mind buzzing."

He added that he would have loved to have taken WhiteKnightTwo and SS2 to Farnborough.

And in a jokey remark concerning Virgin's big airline rival, Sir Richard said: "It would have been nice to have flown over the Olympic Games, especially as British Airways is one of the (Games) sponsors."

A number of the space tourists posed for pictures beside SS2 replica.

They included Irish businessman and author Bill Cullen, 70, who was the first to sign up for a trip into space, paying his 200,000 dollars in 2004.

Accompanied by his partner, Jackie Lavin, today, he said: "I wanted to be the first Irishman in space and I'm really looking forward to it.

"I've been interested in space ever since I followed comic hero Dan Dare when I was a kid."

Another space tourist at Farnborough today was businessman Grant Roberts, 36, formerly from Lewes in East Sussex but now based in Dubai.

He was with his father, Michael, 65, and his grandfather Frank Roberts, 90, who was an RAF pilot who flew on missions over Germany in the Second World War.

"I was inspired by the exploits of my grandfather, as was my father," said Grant Roberts, who paid for his space trip in 2007.

He went on: "I can't wait to go up. The whole family plans to travel out to New Mexico with me."

Space tourists will have to undergo a week's training at the spaceport before taking their flights.

Looking forward to the training and the trip is mergers and acquisition adviser Thomas White, 29, who signed up for Virgin Galactic 18 months ago.

Accompanied by his partner Elizabeth Ellis, Mr White, from Kennington, south London, said today: "It's always been my dream to become an astronaut. I have a degree in aeronautical engineering."

Aircraft leasing company boss Paul Newrick, 51, will be travelling into space with his partner, pastry chef Eric Lanlard, 44.

Mr Newrick, from Wandsworth in south west London, said: "This is a very exciting time and it's getting nearer."

A number of countries are represented among the space tourists. Among the Swedes flying to the heights is financial adviser Christian Dahlberg, 49, from Stockholm. He said he had been talking to Sir Richard in the Caribbean and "got hooked" on the space project.

"I got a telescope from my uncle when I was 10 and have always been interested in space," he said.

Another amateur astronomer who has signed up is Raivo Hein, 46, an investment manager from Tallinn in Estonia.

"I am very excited," he said.

LauncherOne is expected to begin operations in 2016 and can carry up to 500lb of weight

Sir Richard said: "Virgin Galactic's goal is to revolutionise the way we get to space. I'm immensely proud of what we have already achieved as we draw near to regular sub-orbital flights on SpaceShipTwo.

"Now, LauncherOne is bringing the price of satellite launch into the realm of affordability for innovators everywhere, from start-ups and schools to established companies and national space agencies.

"It will be a critical new tool for the global research community, enabling us all to learn about our home planet more quickly and affordably."