Space tourism: Virgin Galactic has big backers, ambitious dreams, celebrity passengers

The explosion of a Virgin Galactic rocket ship during a test flight over California has almost certainly dashed founder Richard Branson's goal of starting passenger flights next spring. Information about Virgin Galactic, its backers, and its goals:


Virgin Galactic is a joint venture between Branson's Virgin Group Ltd. and Aabar Investments PJS, a state-backed investment firm in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates. Aabar said it paid about $280 million for a 32 percent stake in Virgin Galactic's holding company in exchange for the chance to launch tourism and research flights from the Emirates.


Branson and Virgin Galactic have repeatedly stated ambitious goals for the beginning of suborbital passenger flights, followed by delays in developing and testing the rocket ship. In 2008, Branson predicted that the maiden flight would come within 18 months. In interviews last month, Branson said the first space flight could happen before Christmas and that he and his son hoped to fly on the first passenger flight, perhaps in March. That goal, too, seems unlikely after Friday's accident, which happened minutes after SpaceShipTwo separated from the plane that carried it high into the atmosphere. Galactic said late Friday the cause was unknown.


The spacecraft was built by Scaled Composites, a firm founded by famous aerospace designer Burt Rutan. Virgin Galactic said Friday's test flight marked the 55th time that SpaceShipTwo had flown on its own and that WhiteKnightTwo had flown 173 times. Company officials said the long development and testing period was all for safety. "Customers are eager to fly, but they know we'll fly them when we feel ready," the CEO, George Whitesides, said in September.


Seats on Virgin Galactic cost $250,000 each. The company said this month that it has signed up about 700 passengers who have put down more than $80 million in deposits. Galactic hopes to eventually sell point-to-point flights similar to airlines — New York to Australia in 40 minutes, for example, Branson suggested.


As Galactic's chief salesman, the 64-year-old, shaggy-haired Branson is among the world's most recognizable and flamboyant entrepreneurs. He owns a private island in the Caribbean, and his Virgin Group has holdings around the globe in airlines, entertainment, telecommunications and other industries. Galactic's passenger list is dotted with celebrities, including actor Ashton Kutcher and singer Justin Bieber.