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London Premiere Of The Matrix ReloadedEver wanted to view the Earth from space? Now’s your chance! The only catch: coughing up the $250,000 for the privilege.

Starting next year, Richard Branson, British-born chairman of the Virgin Group, will begin offering commercial flights to suborbital space on his Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. He and his grown children will be on the inaugural flight, just beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

“We’ve had people like myself who booked the whole spaceship for their families,” Branson told NBC News recently, “and I think it’ll be just a magnificent experience for everybody.”

Branson, the 63-year-old billionaire, has been saying for years that he’d be aboard Virgin Galactic’s first passenger spaceflight with his family. Soon, it will actually come to pass. “I think any rational person would be slightly nervous, but it’s going to be the most incredible experience ever,” Branson’s son Sam said during the NBC interview.

Still in the testing phase

Although SpaceShipTwo still has to go through months of flight tests, Branson said it will be proven safe before he gets on board at New Mexico’s Spaceport America. “My wife would never forgive me if none of us came back, so we’ll make absolutely sure it’s well and truly tested,” he told NBC News.

The test flights will reach more than 62 miles in altitude to hit the outer-space frontier by early next year. If the tests go well and the Federal Aviation Administration clears Virgin Galactic to take on passengers, the Bransons could get their suborbital space ride by mid-2014. However, that time frame isn’t set in stone, according to Branson: “It’s rocket science, so it does take a little longer than one expects.”

Branson is already well into the training routine for next year’s spaceflight, taking part in simulated SpaceShipTwo flights and zero-G airplane flights since 2007.

Poised to make history

Virgin Galactic has been working on SpaceShipTwo for almost a decade, dating back to 2004 and the prize-winning flights of SpaceShipOne, the world’s first private-sector space plane. Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments have put hundreds of millions of dollars into the development project, NBC reports.

So far, SpaceShipTwo has taken more than two dozen glide flights, plus two rocket-powered test outings, in April and September. Another powered test is expected within a month.

The craft is designed to carry two pilots and six passengers. Approximately 640 customers have already signed up for rides into space, at a price of $200,000-250,000 per seat. During each flight, SpaceShipTwo will be attached to a mothership―WhiteKnightTwo―and transported to an altitude of 50,000 feet for launch. The rocket plane is then dropped from the mothership, and a few seconds later, its pilots fire up the hybrid rocket engine for the ascent. Passengers will experience a rocket-powered roller coaster ride to the edge of space, 4-6 minutes of weightlessness at the top, and a matchless view of the curve of the Earth amidst the black sky of space. After rising to maximum altitude, the plane will then make a gliding descent back to the runway.

Star power

Not surprisingly, the rich and famous have wasted no time in booking a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo. Celebrities who have reserved a spot include Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher. There will also be an NBC reality TV series, “Space Race,” in which contestants vie for a ride into space. Stay tuned―maybe it could be you up in space!

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