Branson: Commercial Space Tourism Only 18 Months Away (Again)

Sir Richard Branson greets Virgin Galactic ticketholders. Financier Per Wimmer is at left; behind Branson is Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn.

Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson has given an estimate of when suborbital space tourism will begin, AFP reports:

“We just finished building SpaceShipTwo. We are 18 months away from taking people into space,” Branson told a business conference in Kuala Lumpur, adding that the fare will start at 200,000 dollars.

Virgin Galactic officials have avoided providing any estimates on the start of commercial operations lately amid reports of serious problems in developing SpaceShipTwo’s propulsion system. This latest announcement could be a sign that those issues are under control — or that Branson is simply off message. The billionaire apparently gave no details on the status of engine development.

Next Monday will mark the sixth anniversary of builder Scaled Composites winning the Ansari X Prize with the SpaceSpaceOne prototype. At the time, officials predicted space tourists would be flying in about three years. If Branson’s new estimate is correct, about seven and a half years will have passed by the time tourists begin flying commercially.

AFP reports that Virgin Galactic’s goals are much more ambitious than quick trips into near space:

Branson also has visions of establishing hotels in space, which well-heeled tourists can use as a base for shuttle flights over the moon.

“We are looking at hotels in space. We love the moon,” the tycoon said, adding that he was also interested in launching “small satellites into space” for the benefit of schools and universities.

As always, we’ll see what happens.