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Bransons, space tourists anxious for maiden flight

British billionaire Richard Branson aims to one day make traveling to space safe and affordable for the masses, not just those who can afford a $200,000 ticket.
Sonja Rohde
This undated image provided by Sonja Rohde, center, shows her weightlessness training session on a Zero G flight that took off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Rohde, who is from Hagen, Germany, is among the first 100 people to have booked flights with the Virgin Galactic spaceline.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Few people know British billionaire Richard Branson better than his mother. After all, some say she instilled in him much of his resourcefulness and thirst for adventure.

From flying around the world in a balloon to swimming with sharks, the 87-year-old Eve Branson says her baby — as she calls him — has been in plenty of difficult and dangerous situations. All of his adventures have turned out fine, and she expects it will be no different with his efforts to get paying customers to the edge of the Earth on his Virgin Galactic spaceline.

"Everything he does is usually done pretty thoroughly," she says. "He tries very hard, my little baby."

Eve Branson acknowledges that her family is anxious to see the day when the first mothership and rocket take off from Virgin Galactic's remote desert base at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. But this adventure goes way beyond Richard Branson and his usual stuntman antics.

The aim, the daring businessman says, is to one day make traveling to space safe and affordable for the masses, not just those who can afford a $200,000 ticket.

While some might think the venture is dangerous, the thoroughness Branson's mother brags about has left hundreds of prospective space tourists with no second thoughts about flying with Virgin Galactic. More than 450 people from 46 different countries have already plunked down deposits.

The futuristic Spaceport America and the nearly 2-mile (3-kilometer) concrete runway are complete, and the spacecraft being developed for Virgin Galactic are done. All that's lacking are more rocket tests and powered test flights.

Branson said in an interview following Monday's dedication ceremony at Spaceport America that he expects enough tests to be done by Christmas 2012 so commercial flights can begin soon after. He and his children plan to be among the first to fly.

The hard part is waiting.

But Branson didn't waste an opportunity during his visit to share his excitement with some 150 space tourists.

"Are you all pinching yourselves? Because I know I am," he told them while inside the spacious hangar.

Sonja Rohde of Hagen, Germany, was among those listening. She was one of the first 100 people to sign up after bumping into Branson while on safari in Africa and learning about his plan.

Rohde, who is in her early 30s, had dreamed of becoming an astronaut when she was young. The more practical desires of her parents won out, but she didn't give up the dream of one day making it to space.

"I saw a documentary that said space travel would be possible for private individuals from 2050 on. I said 'OK, I'll do it even as a toothless grandmother, but I will do it,'" she said.

She met Branson in 2005, as he and New Mexico officials were negotiating details of the spaceport venture. It was then she realized that becoming the first German woman to reach space could happen a lot sooner.

Rohde said it was a magical moment — the right time, the right place and a chance meeting with the right person.

Now, she says it's like waiting for Christmas.

"You can hardly wait to finally take off," she said.

Rohde has attended every milestone since Virgin Galactic began its venture. She has also done some weightlessness training and has grand visions of what it will be like when she's finally aboard SpaceShipTwo.

G-forces pressing her into the seat. The sensation of traveling at four times the speed of sound. The sky changing from light to dark blue to purple and then finally black.

"I think it will fulfill everything I envision in a perfect space adventure because we will be able to see 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) in every direction," she said. "I think it will be overwhelming and breathtaking to see our fragile Earth from above, and I think it will provide a deeper appreciation, a deeper understanding of the Earth."

The prospect of suborbital flights and someday traveling further into space also holds promise for New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who made her first visit to the spaceport for the dedication since taking office in January.

Martinez spoke to all the spaceport's practical benefits — jobs, educational opportunities for New Mexico students, international recognition and partnerships that could spur more economic development.

But seeing Virgin Galactic's mothership WhiteKnightTwo taxi down the runway, lift off and fly over the spaceport as the moon was overhead evoked something more for the governor.

"I might have to add it to my bucket list," she said, noting later that it would have to become more affordable.

Branson boasted this week that it will be at least five years before Virgin Galactic has serious rivals in the commercial space tourism race. Until then, he might have to continue pinching himself.

"The aim is not just to make dreams come true for the people who can afford $200,000," he said. "The aim is make dreams come true for hundreds of thousands of people. ... That's a dream I think that we will make a reality one day."

When Branson first proposed the spaceline, his mother's response was, "Oh God, here we go again."

Standing on the tarmac with the spaceport looming large behind her and Virgin Galactic's sleek spacecraft sitting to the side, she said she never dreamed it would get to this point.

"We are making a little bit of history, aren't we? It's wonderful," she said. "We can't wish for any more, really."