Two million air miles will buy you a ticket into space

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The Independent Online

Passengers on Sir Richard Branson's forthcoming commercial flights into space will have six minutes to somersault freely in zero gravity and contemplate the fragility of the Earth, before strapping themselves in for their return to the California desert.

"The pilot has turned off the 'Fasten seatbelts' sign; you are now free to float around the cabin as you wish," holders of the $200,000 (£107,000) tickets will be told as the Virgin Galactic spaceship reaches an altitude of 90 miles.

Sir Richard unveiled the interior of the Virgin spaceship, promising "the most intense and wonderful experience our passengers have ever had".

He hopes to "democratise space travel" by allowing ordinary people to obtain tickets through public lotteries, by clocking up two million airmiles on Virgin Atlantic, or by signing up to a reality television series that will be "a mixture of Doctor Who, Star Trek and The Krypton Factor".

The first of Virgin's five rocket-powered vehicles - which will carry two pilots and six passengers - is being built in the Mojave desert and begins test flights late next year.

It is based on the design by the aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, of SpaceShipOne, the first privately built vehicle to reach space in 2004. It will turn on its rockets only after being carried to a launch altitude of about nine miles on the belly of an aircraft called White Knight.

Among the first passengers will be a London businessman Alan Watts, who traded airmiles for his ticket into space. The businessman will have three days of training before the two-and-a-half-hour journey, reaching speeds of up to 3,000mph.

With seats shaped like scooped-out slices of melon, and a crisp white interior spotted with portholes on the walls, floor and ceiling, SpaceShipTwo looks similar to a small aeroplane, but without full airline service. There will be no in-flight meals, only "a number of products" to settle the stomach and bowels ahead of the enormous G-forces that passengers will experience.

There ought to be no complaints about in-flight entertainment. "Astronauts of the past 45 years have all returned to Earth struggling to convey the enormity of what they have experienced, and with their perceptions clearly changed," Sir Richard said. "To be able to extend that privilege to people from all walks of life has been a long-held ambition of Virgin."

One who has been there before is lunar pioneer Buzz Aldrin, who was at yesterday's announcement.

A sub-orbital space flight will give a clear view of the curvature of the Earth and the thinness of the atmosphere, an experience that Sir Richard hopes will turn more people on to environmental activism.

Virgin has done away with its early plans for tethers that could restrict passengers' movement in zero gravity, and it is not even certain that travellers will have to wear pressure suits.

The entrepreneur, who last week said he would plough $3bn of the Virgin group's profits into the development of green fuels, hopes SpaceShipTwo will have practically no carbon dioxide emissions.

"When Nasa ships take off, the amount of energy they give out could power New York, but today we have to come up with all the new technologies to make sure this is a green spaceship," he said.

Almost 200 people have already signed up for the first commercial flights, which could be as soon as 2009. Passengers are expected to waive Virgin's liability for their safety, and financiers are already planning special two-and-a-half-hour life insurance policies.