Private Spaceship Could Start Carrying Tourists Within a Year
Sir Richard Branson show's off his favorite space plane - SpaceShipTwo.
Credit: Virgin Galactic

NEW YORK ? Virgin Galactic's new commercial spaceship could be flying its first passengers ? company founder Sir Richard Branson and his family ? in about a year, Branson said today (Nov. 30) on NBC's "Today" show.

"We're about 12 months away," Branson said. The craft, called SpaceShipTwo, will provide tourists with a brief taste of weightlessness and a window on the globe of the Earth from the blackness of space, without making a full orbit around the planet. The ship flies six passengers and two pilots.

"It's really exciting," he said. "The spaceship is now finished, the mothership is finished, the spaceport in New Mexico is very nearly finished." [Gallery: First Solo Flight of SpaceShipTwo]

SpaceShipTwo will be lofted to midair by a carrier mothership called WhiteKnightTwo, then will rocket itself up to space. The initial launches will fly out of Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, N.M.

Branson, a British billionaire, was here in New York City to promote a separate venture, the launch of an iPad lifestyle magazine called Project, also under the banner of Branson's Virgin Group. The publication will be a combination print magazine and website, featuring constantly updated content and sold via the Apple app store for $2.99 a month.

Flights on SpaceShipTwo won't be nearly as affordable. Branson said 500 passengers are already signed up, at $200,000 a ride.

"Over the years, as more and more people go, I think we'll start bringing the price of it down," Branson said.

Apparently not content to stick to suborbital trips, Branson has hinted that Virgin Galactic might soon begin to pursue orbital space travel. The company would join several other firms vying to produce the first commercial spacecraft capable of carrying people to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.

That market has become even more enticing in the wake of President Obama's decision to steer NASA toward using private spaceships for this purpose once they become available.