British airline magnate Richard Branson announced a hugely ambitious plan Monday for the world's first commercial space flights, saying he would send "thousands" of fee-paying astronauts into orbit in the next five years.
Branson, a flamboyant communicator and high-profile tycoon, said his Virgin Atlantic airline had signed a technology licensing deal with the US company behind SpaceShipOne, which in June became the first private manned craft to travel to space.
Addressing reporters in central London, Branson said that the new firm -- Virgin Galactic -- would launch its maiden flight in only three years, and that he would join the very first trip into space.
"Within five years, Virgin Galactic will have created over 3,000 new astronauts from many countries," Branson said, speaking alongside US aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, who designed and built SpaceShipOne.
"Many of these countries will have not had the funds to date to compete with the government-funded space programmes of the superpowers.
"We plan to construct launch pads for commercial space travel in a number of countries over the next few years."
Such a vastly ambitious plan is typical of the 54-year-old serial entrepreneur, who first made a fortune with the Virgin pop record label before branching out into air travel, railways and a string of other ventures.
Virgin has signed an agreement worth 14 million pounds (20.5 million euros, 25 million dollars) with Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which owns the technology behind SpaceShipOne, it announced.
Would-be space tourists will pay fees starting at 115,000 poundseuros, 207,000 dollars) and receive three days of flight training before embarking on the real trip.
In a near-messianic speech, Branson pledged that his principal aim was to make space travel possible for ordinary people.
"Virgin Galactic will be run as a business, but as a business with a sole purpose of making space travel more and more affordable to people throughout the world," he said.
"We will re-invest the funds raised over the first few years of flight back into the business, striving constantly to lower prices."
For years, Branson said, he had "dreamt of seeing the beauty of our planet from space".
He added: "Burt and I will be fortunate enough to have fulfilled our own personal dreams and to experience all of this on the inaugural flight over Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise in three years' time."
However a space expert warned that Branson's plan, while technically feasible, was riddled with potential difficulties and unlikely to usher in an immediate era of mass space travel.
"It is something that is technically possible, but space is a very expensive business, and space tourism is likely to remain an expensive business for a very long time," said Andre Balogh, professor of space physics at London University's Imperial College.
Monday's announcement was best viewed as a "statement of intent", Balogh said.
"Eventually it will come. Whether it will come in Richard Branson's time, and in his way, remains to be seen," he told AFP.
SpaceShipOne shot into the history books in June when it became the first non-government-financed manned spaceship to travel beyond the 100-kilometre (62-mile) boundary of space and back again.
The craft now aims to win the so-called "X-Prize", a 10-million-dollar bounty on offer for sending a private craft capable of carrying three people into space twice.
SpaceShipOne is scheduled to fly again this Wednesday, and then once more on October 4.
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