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Virgin Starts (70) Mile-High Club

With the misery that has plagued the airline industry recently, the last place you'd expect to see some inspiring -- heck, potentially rule-breaking -- thinking would be from an airline entrepreneur. But, then again, Virgin Group's Sir Richard Branson is no ordinary business magnate.

On the same day he tried to muscle in on Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iTunes dominance, Britain's answer to Donald Trump -- sans comb-over, of course -- yesterday unveiled a plan to allow ordinary Janes and Joes to hop a Virgin flight to space. Termed Virgin Galactic, the new addition to the list of Virgin ventures will by 2007 bring tourists above the atmosphere for a flight that will include an estimated four minutes of weightlessness.

Interestingly, the idea isn't all Branson. In fact, the Virgin Galactic website gives a lot of credit to Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) co-founder Paul Allen. Allen, through his Mojave Aerospace Ventures, funded the creation of SpaceShipOne, a craft designed to prove that manned space tourism could be practical.

SpaceShipOne in June completed a 90-minute flight that took it 62 miles above the Earth. Virgin is licensing the technology. Construction will begin on the VSS Enterprise, its first ship for touring the final frontier, next year. The Associated Press reports that $108 million is expected to be invested in the venture.

Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be any immediate opportunities for investors. But that could change fast if Branson's idea catches on. And it could, because it has before. During Christmas of 1968, the late Juan Trippe, founder of now-defunct Pan American Airways, announced that his airline would accept reservations for travel to the moon, forcing rival Trans World, now a part of AMR Corp's (NYSE: AMR  ) American, to follow suit. At one point, Pan-Am's moon flight reservations list reached more than 90,000. (Perhaps it's no coincidence that Sir Richard lionized Trippe in a profile for Time in 1998.)

If Virgin creates a massive preflight waiting list of its own, expect the floodgates to open. That could mean anything from the creation of new "spacelines," to other airlines booking orders for new space planes with Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) or Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) , to the construction of an orbital hotel from Hilton (NYSE: HLT  ) , Marriott (NYSE: MAR  ) , or Starwood. Till then, Branson's inspiring vision remains a far-flung fantasy that has to prove it has the fuel to lift off. But I'll keep collecting my frequent flier miles in case it does.

For more Foolish adventures in space:

  • Orbital Sciences'"scramjet" took off in March, but the stock hasn't.
  • There's a new space race on; will you profit from it?
  • After 35 years, we're finally going back to the moon.

What do you think? Will Virgin make space tourism work? How much would you pay to reach the final frontier? What will be the winning investments in the new space race? Discuss all this and more at the Space Exploration & Terraforming and New Paradigm Investing discussion boards. Only at

Fool contributor Tim Beyers has a budding collection of Virgin Atlantic frequent flier miles, although he's thinking Sir Richard is planning to charge cash for spaceflights. Tim owns no interest in any of the companies mentioned, and you can view his Fool profile here.

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