Long-haul trips could be made in spaceships instead of planes in 20 years' time if Virgin's efforts to commercialize space travel succeed, the president of Virgin Galactic said.
Will Whitehorn said Virgin's plans to take tourists into space were just a first stage that could open up a range of possibilities for the company including space science, computer server farms in space and replacing long-haul flights.
Virgin Galactic, part of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, has collected $40 million in deposits from would-be space tourists including physicist Stephen Hawking and ex-racing driver Niki Lauda, and hopes to start commercial trips within two years.
Whitehorn said the bookings from 300 people willing to pay $200,000 each for a space flight had convinced Virgin the venture was viable. It is currently running test flights and hopes soon to win a license from the Federal Aviation Authority.
"We needed to know we had a sound business plan," he said on the fringes of the FIPP World Magazine Congress, where he had been invited to speak on innovation.
Virgin claims that its technology, which releases a spaceship into sub-orbit in the air using a jet carrier aircraft, is more environmentally friendly than traditional ground-launched rocket technology.
The non-metallic materials from which the spaceship is built are also lighter and require less power than, for example, NASA's space shuttles, Whitehorn argues.
He foresees uses of the spaceship for science experiments, for example as an alternative to visiting the international space station or using unmanned flights for pharmaceuticals companies seeking to use microgravity to change particles.
Later, the aircraft could be used to launch small satellites or take other payloads into space, Whitehorn says. "We could put all of our server farms in space quite easily."
Asked about the environmental impact, he points out that they could be completely solar-powered, and says that in any case the hostile vacuum in space makes it hard to do damage beyond leaving debris behind.
"Polluting space is extremely difficult," he said.
Eventually, he sees the possibility of transporting passengers to terrestrial destinations in spacecraft outside the atmosphere instead of by plane. He says a journey from Britain to Australia could be done in about 2-1/2 hours.
"That's a 20-year horizon," he said.
Virgin is not the only non-governmental party trying to develop space travel in the private sphere, but Whitehorn is confident it will be the first to take passengers into space.
SpaceX, led by veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk, is developing space-launch vehicles but they are not designed to carry passengers.
Whitehorn said he had received many expressions of interest from financial and other institutions and corporations interested in taking a stake in the business, which it would consider.
"We perceive the possibility we will be able to bring an investor in," he said. "I think there will be a wall of money that goes into private space."
Asked about how environmentally friendly it was to develop space tourism, which arguably nobody needs in the first place, Whitehorn said none of the future projects he envisaged would be possible without first proving a business model.
"You could not develop the system at this stage without developing the markets," he said.
He also argued that the experience of viewing Earth from space would transform people's attitudes.
"There's only been 500 people in space so far, and each has cost $50 to $100 million on average," he said. "Every astronaut is an environmentalist."