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One small step for a man, and US$250,000 for Branson's Virgin group

There's a 750-strong waiting list for those who want to be astronauts on Virgin Galactic's spaceships

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Mr Branson: "At least 2 out of 3 people I talk to say they would love to go to space one day. ... the market out there is enormous if we can ensure the product is safe and is affordable over time."

Singapore

THE waiting list to travel to outer space on board Virgin Galactic's new spaceships first closed four years ago, but the demand to become a space traveller has far from waned.

When British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson hosted a dinner in Singapore on Monday night, two people at the meal each shelled out a six-figure sum, reportedly around US$250,000, the full price of each ticket.

What they, and the other 750 people on the list are hoping to get in return, is the extremely rare opportunity for a weightless experience out of Earth on a round-trip flight that will last just under four hours.

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Mr Branson's Virgin Group is the parent company of Virgin Galactic, which was founded in 2004 to develop commercial spacecraft for space tourism and space exploration.

The 68-year-old, who is also chairman of Virgin Galactic, remains convinced that the billions of dollars that have been pumped into the research, development and testing of the spaceships is a sound investment.

"I'm sure there are many people on the Virgin Group board who may question my level of sanity, but I firmly believe that yes, space travel and space tourism can be truly sustainable," he told The Business Times in an exclusive interview.

"I'd say at least two out of every three people I talk to say they would love to go to space one day. It's the trip of a lifetime. I think the market out there is enormous if we can ensure the product is safe and is affordable over time."

Mr Branson, who is busy getting himself into the "best physical shape" of his life as he prepares to be a space traveller himself early next year, draws some similarities with the start of modern aviation more than a century ago.

"It begins with a few wealthy people (who can afford to buy a plane ticket), and then over the years, the price comes down. So now the majority of the world's population is able to fly, and hopefully, that will be the case for space travel too," he said.

He said the length of Virgin Galactic's initial flights will be kept relatively short in order to keep prices at a "reasonable level".

"(Prices) are unlikely to ever come down to a point where millions are able to go to space, but we can try to at least bring it down to where tens of thousands of people can become astronauts. Our mission is to make space travel as affordable and safe as possible," he said.

He admitted that it has taken him "at least seven years longer than I thought it would" for Virgin Galactic to reach this point, but he says the countdown is on for the first spaceship, which will take off in a matter of weeks.

The company has already sorted out the necessary regulatory and licensing issues. Mr Branson said the first spaceship is "99.9 per cent complete".

A Virgin Galactic spacecraft can accommodate two astronauts who will pilot it, along with six paying passengers.

Mr Branson said he will re-open the waiting list some time next year.

Virgin Galactic isn't the only private spaceflight services company out there. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has Blue Origin, and he is pumping in US$1 billion of his Amazon stock into the venture every year with the aim of launching a crewed mission next year.

Then there is Tesla founder Elon Musk's Space Explorations Technologies - better known as SpaceX - which has been reported to be planning to launch a flight to circle the moon in 2023.

Like all shrewd businessmen, Mr Branson welcomes the competition, but he maintains that Virgin Galactic will beat the others to the punch.

"For space travel, the demand will far outstrip supply. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are formidable competitors, and there's definitely room for all three companies," he said.

"Elon's not really competing in our field, so I would say it's more Bezos at this point. Both of our crafts are pretty different, and obviously we think that people will prefer our offering."

The 40-minute interview with Mr Branson took place at Virgin Active's double-storey fitness club at Marina One, along Straits View in the Marina Bay district.

Virgin Active operates five clubs in Singapore, with a sixth due to open in Paya Lebar soon. In the Asia-Pacific, there are seven clubs each in Thailand and Australia.

When asked about the plans to expand the fitness arm of the Virgin Group, Mr Branson noted that while there was "considerable opportunity" to grow in China and other parts of Asia, the priority is to continue to grow the company's presence in existing markets first.

"For Australia, Thailand and Singapore, there's room for expansion. We want to build and consolidate first before we look at other countries."

At an age when most other people are already retired and kicking up their feet, Mr Branson - whose estimated net worth is about US$5 billion - is not even thinking of slowing down.

"No, I don't think I can fully retire. I love life, I love people, I love learning, and I love the variety of what I do," said the man who describes himself on his Twitter profile as a "tie-loathing adventurer, philanthropist and troublemaker who believes in turning ideas into reality".

"I think it would be a waste of the position that I find myself in today, where I can continue to make as positive a difference as I can while I'm still alive. Life is short, and I want to make sure I don't waste a minute of it."