Richard Branson interview - Stars in his eyes

Sir Richard Branson is serious about space tourism with Virgin Galactic – and is even investigating using Scotland as a launch base, writes William Lyons

Lossiemouth would be ideal for launches as it offers a good trajectory for views of Britain

FOR some it is the science, the scale of technological breakthrough, the chance to experience the pinnacle of aviation engineering. For others it is the spirit of adventure, the opportunity to experience weightlessness and enjoy a view only a handful of humans have ever seen. Whatever the reason is for wishing to travel into space, the Final Frontier appears to be recession-proof. Will Whitehorn, who heads Sir Richard Branson's space operation, Virgin Galactic, says the past four weeks have been the busiest so far.

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"It's inexplicable," he admits. "We have just had our best ever sales month. It may have something to do with the fact that there are a lot of people out there who are high net worth individuals and have been liquidating their portfolios in horror of what has been happening. They have thought to themselves, let's put it towards something extraordinary."

That something extraordinary is the opportunity to fly into space. $200,000 buys a seat aboard Virgin's SpaceShipTwo, a small spacecraft that will hitch a ride on the mothership (White Knight Two) which will climb to a height of 50,000 feet, before blasting off towards the edge of space.

During the two-and-a-half-hour round trip passengers will be propelled to an altitude of 70 miles at a speed of more than 2,000mph. As the spacecraft reaches the top of its trajectory the would-be astronauts will be able to unclip from their seats and experience four to six minutes of weightlessness.

So far, 80,000 people have registered an interest in being among the six passengers for the inaugural Virgin Galactic trip, and 286 have paid deposits, including physicist Stephen Hawking, the environmentalist James Lovelock and former Dallas actress Victoria Principal.

"We are now holding $40m in deposits from a huge range of people," says Whitehorn. "In July we unveiled White Knight Two, the world's largest carbon-fibre aircraft, in the Mojave desert, California. By the time this article is in print we will have begun months of test flights. The next stage is the actual aircraft, which we will unveil next summer, ahead of our first commercial flights to space by early 2010."

Whitehorn admits that for those who watched the first ever moon landings, commercial space travel was regarded as the next logical step. But decades of disappointment, including some high profile Nasa accidents, has enveloped the concept of space travel in cynicism. Most commentators, he says, just "don't get it", and he spends a large part of any interview convincing increasingly sceptical journalists about the plausibility of the project.

Tomorrow the audience will be tourism chiefs as Whitehorn delivers the keynote speech at Edinburgh's Hospitality Industry Trust lunch. He will tell them that the fall in the value of the pound provides an opportunity for Scotland to lure back American and Canadian visitors. He will also expand on his vision for Scotland as a space hub.

"I believe there will be an opportunity to tour this system to various places," he says. "We are going to have a permanent home in Spaceport America, New Mexico and we might also have a permanent home in the Gulf. But Lossiemouth would be ideal for launches in the summer as it offers a good trajectory for views of Britain and launching satellites. We are giving serious consideration to Lossiemouth but have not started formal discussions with the Ministry of Defence or RAF yet."

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The Virgin Galactic dates to a gathering in a Marrakesh hotel in 1995 between Whitehorn, Branson and Buzz Aldrin. Waiting for the weather to clear for Branson's round-the-world balloon flight, the conversation turned to space. Branson wondered if it would be possible for balloons to lift spacecraft high enough to start their ascent, thus removing the need for expensive, polluting rockets. Aldrin said the US Navy had experimented with the idea in the 1950s but rockets won the day.

Branson left Morocco convinced by the possibility of space travel. A few years later his team came across the California-based aerospace inventor and former test pilot Burt Rutan. At the time Rutan was working for Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire, in an attempt to win the Ansari X Prize, a non-profit competition aimed to stimulate technological development. Rutan had developed the technology for aircraft – essentially a space shuttle with bent back wings – to carry people into space. It is these designs that are now being expanded for the Virgin fleet.

Whitehorn, a former RAF cadet who learned to fly at Edinburgh's Turnhouse airport, was appointed as president of Virgin Galactic in 2004. The same year Virgin agreed to put $250m into Rutan's venture.

His first task was to ascertain whether there was a market. It was, he says, surprisingly easy as there are a huge amount of high net worth individuals wanting to experience space. After realising the size of the market Virgin began to explore the possibilities of the spin off technology.

This now underpins the business plan. Whitehorn believes Virgin's mothership will be able to provide a cheap, environmentally friendly way of lifting payloads such as satellites and scientists into space. The business plan is predicated on breaking even in 2012, and making profit thereafter.

"Space tourism is the cornerstone of the early plan. Some of the spin-offs can be applied to science and industry and also the aviation industry. People often say why space? Innovations such as weather satellites and the GPS system, which allows more careful shipping of food around the globe, have allowed farmers to raise food production by 10%. Another billion people would be starving without space."

The next step is to appoint a chief executive in about three to four months' time. Then the team will bring the project to market.

"The chief executive in all probability will be an American citizen, someone who has experience of industrial infrastructure projects and the luxury end of the market," says Whitehorn. "We need someone who is comfortable selling a luxury product but also understands aviation, travel and science. It will be interesting."

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The inaugural flight is reserved for Branson and his son but Whitehorn has booked his place on a trip not far behind. "The great thing about Sir Richard is that he never takes no for an answer, he wants to be persuaded," says Whitehorn. "It is a true entrepreneurial adventure."