The first commercial space passengers of Virgin Galactic will be experiencing weightlessenes and "one hell of a ride" by the start of 2013, according to the space travel company's founder, Sir Richard Branson.
Speaking at the McAfee Focus 11 conference in Las Vegas, he said that the company would be ready to take flights into space by December 2012 with Branson and his family amongst the first space passengers.
According to Branson, Virgin Galactic would take more people into space in one year - 2013 - than NASA and the Russian space program had taken into orbit in the last 50 years.
Only 500 people had gone into space in that time period whereas, by the end of 2011, the waitlist for his company would be over 500, he said.
"Our real challenge is that the price these people are paying is not cheap," he said. "They are the pioneers who are paying US$200,000 to go into space."
However, he was willing to forecast that in 20 years time the travel costs would be down to a level where most people's children would have the option to become astronauts.
When asked if the creation of space ships that would briefly go above the Earth's atmosphere in order to speed up travel between countries in much shorter time frames would be possible, Branson said that his engineers were already thinking about creating space craft that could do this.
"I'm heading to Australia this week and my engineers tell me that maybe they could engineer a craft that will cut travel time between Las Vegas and Australia down to one and half hours," he said.
"I'm hoping that they can achieve that in our lifetime. The only problem is security because by the time you get through the airport and pass customs that's another one and half hours," he joked.
At the end of September, Virgin Galactic conducted a test of the new space craft, SpaceShipTwo, which when released by the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, experienced a downward pitch rate that caused a stall of the tails. However, according to a log kept by the space craft's manufactuer, Scaled Composites, the crew was able to correct the descent by "selecting the feather [tail system] mode to revert to a benign condition."
When asked to comment on this, Branson said the company was building a space ship program "from scratch." He pointed out that when NASA was bulding its space program it had similar challenges.
"They lost three per cent of their customers [astronauts], generally speaking, at the re-entry stage. That's completley unacceptable if you're a commercial space ship company because we cannot afford to lose our customers," he said.
However, the company had employed "brave test pilots" who were putting the craft through their paces while SpaceShipTwo had back up mechanisms that worked.
"By the time we fly passengers in 15 months time, we would have done many flights into space and hope that it goes ahead without anyone getting hurt."
Branson also revealed that the company was working on a space hotel which was planned to feature glass pod bedrooms for passengers to stay in while the hotel orbited the Moon.
"We also plan to have tiny space ships where you go off for a day ride around the Moon," he said.
However, he did not disclose a time frame for the construction of the space hotel.
Hamish Barwick travelled to Focus11 as a guest of McAfee
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