MOSCOW (Reuters Life!) - British billionaire Richard Branson's space travel venture has landed in Russia, hoping to lure members of its new rich prepared to pay $200,000 for a few minutes in space.
"We think that Russia is going to be a great market to find new customers for Virgin Galactic," the company's Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough told a news conference on Monday.
"We have signed up over 250 customers in total, and 11 of those have already come from Russia."
Virgin Galactic, a brainchild of Branson who owns Britain's No. 2 long-haul airline Virgin Atlantic, plans to launch spaceships into space from carrier planes, taking two pilots and six passengers on a brief suborbital journey.
The pleasure of feeling like an astronaut, floating for four or five minutes in weightlessness at an altitude of 110 km (69 miles) will cost $200,000.
The company hopes to launch its commercial services by the end of 2010.
Igor Kutsenko, a 34-year-old who runs an advertisement agency bought a ticket 18 months ago and has been earmarked as the first Russian to make a suborbital flight with Virgin Galactic. He has also paid for his parents to make the trip.
"It's hard to be a new Gagarin," he said with a smile, referring to Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet military pilot who in 1961 made the first manned flight into space.
TESTS IN CENTRIFUGE
The carrier aircraft is due to be rolled out by the end of July, and Virgin Galactic will start flying this aircraft in the autumn. The spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, will roll out in early 2009, after which both vehicles will be test-flown together.
"That test flight program is open-ended, because safety is our absolute priority. We are not in a race with anyone," Attenborough said. "But all being well, we hope that commercial services could start towards the end of 2010."
The U.S.-based company Space Adventures has already sent five space tourists on 10-day journeys to the International Space Station since 2001.
The fee for the brief odyssey to the multi-national outpost is in excess of $30 million. But above all, a selected tourist should have perfect health and undergo months of special training to fly into space aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
The first 100 hopefuls to fly with Virgin Galactic -- aged 22 to 88 -- have already undergone tests in a centrifuge.
"We expect around 90 to 95 percent of people who want to go to space with us won't be prevented from doing that by means of health of fitness," Attenborough said.
As a business, Virgin Galactic will be in profit in the first year of commercial flights, Attenborough said, adding it could take several years to pay off the development costs.
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Keith Weir)