Richard Branson, the British tycoon known for daredevil exploits in a speedboat, a hot-air balloon and an amphibious car, wants to take a giant leap into the final frontier -- and to give a lift out of this world to similarly intrepid paying passengers.

Branson, 54, is launching the first commercial space service, Virgin Galactic, which will start building its first aircraft, the VSS Enterprise, next year and could blast off from California's Mojave Desert with passengers aboard as soon as 2007. The airline magnate plans to be on the inaugural flight.

Passengers will get a 90-minute suborbital flight similar to what astronaut Alan Shepard experienced in 1961, reaching just over 62 miles above the planet -- high enough to be immersed in the blackness of space, view the curvature of the Earth and experience a few minutes of weightlessness.

Because the cabin will be pressurized, those on board won't need to wear spacesuits. Nor will potential space tourists need NASA-caliber doses of the right stuff: Virgin Galactic will take anyone "reasonably fit" and able to cough up the $200,000 fee and spare a few days for training. The company thinks it can sign up 3,000 customers within its first five years and predicts the price eventually will drop enough to make space flight affordable for the masses.

"We hope to create thousands of astronauts over the next few years and bring alive their dream of seeing the majestic beauty of our planet from above, the stars in all their glory and the amazing sensation of weightlessness," Branson said.

Not so fast, said federal regulators.

"It's easy to say you're going to do it. The hard part is doing it," said Donn Walker, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, which must certify any potential space venture. He noted that even a conventional airline, such as Branson's forthcoming Virgin USA, can take several years to certify. The designer of Branson's spacecraft told the Wall Street Journal in June that he thought it would cost more than $200 million for it to win FAA certification to carry passengers.

Branson said he expected to spend $100 million to make space travel a reality. And he's not the only deep-pocketed player.

The British mogul licensed the spacecraft technology from Mojave Aerospace Ventures, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the third- richest man in the world. Mojave has bankrolled pioneering aviation designer Burt Rutan's creation of SpaceShipOne, which in June became the first privately financed manned spacecraft to successfully complete a flight. Rutan also invented the Voyager, the first plane able to travel around the world without refueling.

The fish-shaped SpaceShipOne is slated to take off from the Mojave Desert again Wednesday in a bid to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize, designed to jump-start space tourism by rewarding the first team that can build and launch a spaceship able to carry three people to the boundary of space, return safely and repeat the feat within two weeks. If all goes well, SpaceShipOne, which will carry two human-weight dummies instead of passengers, will fly again Oct. 4.

"Our mission has been to bring about the creation of the personal space flight revolution where all of us can have a chance to fly into space," said Peter Diamondis, the entrepreneur who founded the X Prize, in an interview from the Mojave Desert.

Diamondis said he was proud to have played a small part in Virgin Galactic's creation. "Just like the early aviation prizes led to the creation of airlines, we're seeing history repeat itself," he said

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