Want to take a ride?

This has been a momentous week for manned space exploration. First, NASA returned to flight with Tuesday’s launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery, which was almost immediately followed by a return to not flying, as safety concerns will be grounding the shuttle fleet once again. The whirlwind of activity has rekindled the debate over the future of the Space Shuttle program and the government’s manned space flight in general.

But in the end, the space news that this week may be remembered for has nothing to do with NASA and everything to do with the introduction of the first real effort to open space to tourism. British entrepeneur Sir Richard Branson and American aerospace innovator Burt Rutan have announced plans to form a new aerospace company with the express purpose of designing craft that can carry passengers into space.

Called The Spaceship Company, the new entity will manufacture launch aircraft, various spacecraft and support equipment and market those products to spaceliner operators. Clients include launch customer, Virgin Galactic—formed by Branson to handle space tourist flights.

The Spaceship Company is jointly owned by Branson’s Virgin Group and Scaled Composites of Mojave, California. Scaled will be contracted for research and development testing and certification of a 9-person SpaceShipTwo (SS2) design, and a White Knight Two (WK2) mothership to be called Eve. Rutan will head up the technical development team for the SS2/WK2 combination.

Like most new technology, the price tag is pretty steep, but Rutan and Branson hope to bring the costs down over time:

At present, seats onboard Virgin Galactic spaceships are price tagged at $200,000 each.

But Branson hopes that this seat price will drop over time. “Our aim is to bring the price down,” he said.

“Our principal aim behind this is not to make money. The principal aim is to reinvest any money we make into space exploration,” Branson said. “We expect to double, triple, quadruple the number of astronauts in the next few years that have currently experienced space,” he said.

To date, Branson said, about a 100 pioneers have been willing to pay $200,000 to be the first people to go into space via Virgin Galactic. “These are the kinds of people who are going to enable us to bring the cost of space travel down,” he stated.

A hat tip for this information goes to Dean Esmay, who notes that if $200,000 a seat sounds like a lot of money:

consider that the average shuttle launch costs about a billion dollars and takes months or years to plan, and the price has gone up over time, while Branson and Rutan plan to aggressively persue getting the price down over time.

Rutan and Branson are true pioneers. I for one wish them well as they pursue their amazing goal of making space travel more widely accessible.