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Balloonist's next adventure: commercial space flights

Airline mogul and adventurer Richard Branson announced plans Monday to boldly go where no private transport company has gone before _ into space.

Branson's Virgin Group said it would offer commercial space flights by 2007, with Branson joining the inaugural journey.

The bid is a natural for Branson, a high-school dropout turned flamboyant tycoon who has made several failed attempts to circle the world by hot-air balloon.

"It's just the kind of thing he absolutely loves, because it gets him maximum publicity," said David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine. "But the technology is there; it's plausible."

Branson, 54, announced a deal to license technology from Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the firm owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen that bankrolled June's historic 90-minute space flight by the aircraft SpaceShipOne.

The Virgin craft will be based on Burt Rutan's design for SpaceShipOne, a stubby rocket-plane capable of carrying a pilot and two passengers.

SpaceShipOne cracked the barrier to manned commercial space flight in June by taking a 90-minute flight almost 62 miles above Earth, just over the distance scientists widely consider to be the boundary of space.

Virgin said its agreement with Mojave Aerospace could be worth up to $25-million over the next 15 years, depending on the number of spaceships it builds.

The company said it planned to begin construction of the first vessel, VSS Enterprise, next year and to offer flights by 2007. It will invest about $108-million in spaceships and ground infrastructure for the venture, it said.

The new service will be called Virgin Galactic and expects to fly 3,000 "astronauts" in its first five years. Fares will start at $208,000 for a two- to three-hour suborbital flight, including three days' training.

The only space tourists to date are U.S. businessman Dennis Tito and South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth, who each paid $20-million for journeys to the international space station on a Russian rocket.

The firm that arranged those trips, Space Adventures, also hopes to begin ticketed suborbital flights within a few years.