NEW YORK Entrepreneur Richard Branson on Wednesday unveiled a model of the spaceship he hopes will be the first to take paying passengers into space on a regular basis as soon as next year.
Branson, whose Virgin Galactic is charging $200,000 for a short trip into space, said his SpaceShipTwo will start test flights later this year.
"We really do want to have a situation where hundreds of thousands of people who want to experience space travel are able to do so," said Branson at a media event at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.
"Even though the dollar isn't worth much anymore, $200,000 is still too expensive for the majority of people," he said. "Within five years of launching, I would hope the price would come down fairly dramatically."
Virgin Galactic, part of Branson's airline, vacation and retail company Virgin Group, now has more than 200 people signed up for the ultimate sightseeing trip, stumping up more than $30 million in deposits.
Passengers getting ready for the suborbital trip include physicist Stephen Hawking, former soap star Victoria Principal and designer Philippe Starck.
Suborbital space flight is the easiest and briefest form of space travel, where the spacecraft technically reaches space -- about 62 miles above sea level -- but then falls back to Earth without completing a revolution of the Earth.
About 100 of Virgin's reserved passengers attended Wednesday's unveiling, to get the first glimpse of the spacecraft's design.
"It's like something out of Thunderbirds," said Trevor Beattie, a British advertising executive, referring to the 1960s TV series. "It's what we as kids in the 1960s thought the future would be like."
Beattie, who co-runs the Beattie McGuinness Bungay advertising firm in London, said he bought the flight instead of splurging on a Ferrari, as he can't drive.
Richard "B.J." Bjorklund, a portfolio manager for Citigroup's Smith Barney unit in Dallas, said the trip would be his only chance of experiencing space travel after failing to get into the U.S. Air Force's astronaut program years ago.
"I figured I would never have a chance to go into space again," said Bjorklund. "I'm thinking somewhere toward the end of 2009 (for launch). But I want them to be safe so I'm ready to go whenever they say it's time to go."
The space trips, from a launching pad to be built in New Mexico, should take about two and a half hours, with about five minutes of weightlessness.
PRIVATE SPACE RACE
SpaceShipTwo, and its launch aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, also unveiled on Wednesday, were designed by Burt Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne collected the Ansari X Prize for privately funded space flight in 2004.
Branson teamed up with Rutan shortly afterwards to design a suborbital spacecraft for Virgin Galactic.
Virgin Galactic is only one of several high-profile contenders in the new commercial space race. Others include Europe's EADS Astrium; Blue Origin, started by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos; Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX), created by PayPal founder Elon Musk; Rocketplane Kistler; and Bigelow Aerospace, a venture aimed at creating space hotels, started by hotelier Robert Bigelow.
The leader in the budding sector is Space Adventures of Vienna, Virginia, which started the space tourism phenomenon in 2001 when it put U.S. businessman Dennis Tito on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft headed for the International Space Station for a reported $20 million. It has since sent another four paying passengers into space the same way.
(Editing by Phil Berlowitz)