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Virgin Galactic space flight service to emulate Virgin Trains

Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin empire, has signed a 14m agreement to have five space ships built in the US by the team behind the SpaceShipOne vehicle, which became the first privately developed carrier to go above 100 km, last June. It will cost around 100,000 to go on a "Virgin Galactic" space ship, and the first sub-orbital flights should begin in about three years' time.

Asked why he wanted to move into space, Sir Richard said that his plans to take over earthbound enterprises had failed to come to fruition, citing his failure to buy Iraq as an example.

"If it [Virgin Galactic] is a success, we want to move into orbital flights and then, possibly, even get a hotel up there," a beaming Sir Richard said from the basket of his balloon in the hangar he uses as an office.

"And then the sky is literally the limit," he added. "Today near space, tomorrow the Moon, and the day after tomorrow the rest of the planets," he said, becoming increasingly excited. "Soon it will be mine, all mine," he concluded, before being quickly taken from his basket by an aide and hustled out of the hangar shouting "resistance is futile."

At a later press conference, Virgin spokesman Douglas Ramsbottom said that Virgin Galactic would emulate Virgin Train's business model and experience, including its service and reliability record.

Our reporter expressed surprise at this and reminded Mr Ramsbottom that two of Virgin's new high-speed tilting trains have already broken down. The flagship "Royal Scot" ended its run at Carlisle after a wheel problem caused it to break down, and a Holyhead to London train failed to start, resulting in passengers having to travel by diesel to Crewe to pick up the London service.

Mr Ramsbottom said that such teething troubles were to be expected when the technology envelope was being pushed to the limit. He noted that only two of 78 tilting services had experienced difficulties and the wheel problem was extremely unusual. With such a record, he suggested, there should be no real cause for alarm on the part of anyone wishing to enjoy Virgin's space flight service. He noted that Virgin Galactic would operate to the same high standards as Virgin Trains.

He curtly denied as a scurrilous rumour that a Virgin Train to the west country has been missing since June. "We found it last month," he said. "In Bootle. We are investigating how it got there."

He also dismissed speculation that Sir Richard is planning to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe in one of those little paddleboats you can hire at seaside resorts. He admitted that Sir Richard had been negotiating with a paddle boat operator at Cleethorpes, but unsuccessfully: the operator apparently could not be convinced that Sir Richard would be able to come in when his time was up.

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