Billionaire tries to make space tours a reality

Soon, Space Shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., may blast off into space and officially end NASA's shuttle program after 30 years.

The question now is -- what's next?

Sir Richard Branson appears to have at least one answer. He plans to operate the world's first commercial tourism space line.

Read more: After Atlantis launch, what's next for NASA?

CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann sat down with the British businessman to talk about his dreams of giving the public a taste of space travel with a brand new business.

Branson told Strassmann, "It's going to be a whole new era of spaceship travel, which will bring space travel to a reality for thousands of people instead of a few hundred."

In 1990, Branson, the British billionaire and adventurer, registered the name Virgin Galactic. After his innovative and successful career in traditional airlines, as well as telecommunications and music, Branson is now setting out to conquer the final frontier - and realize a lifelong dream.

Branson said he first became fascinated with space when he saw the moon landing.

"It was one of those momentous moments in your life. I was absolutely sure I would go to the moon sure thereafter and the years ran by, it seemed clear NASA hadn't really got a big interest in sending you or me or Joe Public up into space, and so I was determined to do something about it."

And in 2004, his determination paid off. Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites - the company now contracted to Virgin Galactic - built the first private-manned space vehicle - named SpaceShipOne - and flew it successfully into space. Today - Rutan is now contracted to build five SpaceShipTwos for Virgin Galactic.

Matthew Stinemetze, program manager for Scaled Composites, said, "It's just kind of this unreal thing that brings back the glory days of early aviation when, you know, people were doing new and bizarre stuff."

That new stuff is a new technology that allows the spaceship to re-enter the atmosphere safely.

Enriqo Palermo, director of operations for The Spaceship Company, said, "Imagine a spaceship that can travel at three and a half times the speed of sound, but can also fold itself in half. The wing of (the aircraft) articulates, so what that does is shut the spaceship up for a safe re-entry."

The unique wing feathering design was what propelled Branson to believe he had built a safe enough vehicle to start booking seats into space.

And for most people, the cost to fly still makes space travel a dream: $200,000 a seat. And yet already, Virgin Galactic has banked more than $55 million in reservations.

Six passengers at a time will board the private jet-sized spaceship attached to the mothership. Together they'll climb to 60,000 feet where the spaceship will be dropped and a rocket will launch it into space, traveling three times the speed of sound.

Within minutes, the rollercoaster sensation will end - and everything will be silent - and weightless.

Branson explained his vision, saying, "Once in space, they will unbuckle they will float around and look through these giant windows back at earth and they will have the biggest grins on their faces."

Brian Binny has had the experience firsthand. Seven years ago, he piloted SpaceShipOne into space

Binny said, "You've got the black sky above. And then separating these two improbable extremes, this thin blue electric ribbon of light, and that's the atmosphere, and it's all yours for the taking. It's just 'Wow.'"

It's an experience Branson himself is eager to enjoy.

Branson said, "I have to pinch myself to realize that we built a spaceship that we plan to go up in in a year's time and that is something I could have only dreamt of when I saw the moon landing all those years ago."

Within 15 years, Branson believes the price of a ticket to space will drop to $25,000 dollars. His vision is that commercial space travel can one day be as routine as transatlantic airline travel.

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