Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson has said his space travel company Virgin Galactic will one day rival Emirates Airline in offering long-distance travel by air.
Virgin Galactic is backed by the Abu Dhabi government’s Aabar Investments, which bought a 35 percent stake in 2009 for $300m.
Branson said the first commercial flight – with himself, his wife and their two children on board - is expected to launch within a few months.
He expected regular passenger services to be in place in about 12 years, offering a real alternative to aeroplane travel.
“I think it really will be the start of a whole new space era,” Branson, who founded airlines Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia, said in Dubai on Monday.
“It’s going to transform telecommunications; we’re going to be able to put thousands of satellites into space very quickly and replace them very quickly.
“And I think one day we may even give Emirates a run for their money. Our spaceship is built in the same shape as an aeroplane; 10 years from now I think we’re going to be going at 18,000 miles per hour around the world, so maybe one hour from London to Singapore.”
The company still intends to build a space port at Abu Dhabi, which would make the emirate a global air space hub, although Branson said the plan was several years away and would require US export approval.
“We have got to get the spaceship working first and what I’ve realised is that it’s rocket science,” he said.
“We have 300 engineers beavering away on it. We have two more test flights [and we should] go into space in three to four months time.
“If myself and my family are not in space by the end of the year, I would be very, very worried.”
Branson said Australia would be one of the first countries to benefit from space travel, given its long distance from much of the world.
"One day I would hope to be flying with Virgin Galactic to Australia,” he said.
“That's the ultimate end game for Virgin Galactic; we build Virgin Galactic spaceships like aeroplanes and we want to make them bigger and bigger and faster and faster in the years to come.
"Obviously if we could fly to Australia in a couple of hours that would give us a massive advantage over everyone else and be a nice way of coming back again," he added, referring to Virgin Atlantic’s decision this month to cancel its only route to Australia.
Flights on board a Virgin Galactic spaceship – of which the company has two at the moment – will initially cost $250,000.
Branson said it would take “about three years” for the company to make a profit.
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