When Superman returns to theaters next year, the superhero won't be saving only Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. The Man of Steel will also reportedly be lending a helping hand to British billionaire Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group travel, media, and communications conglomerate. In one sequence, apparently, archvillain Lex Luthor attempts to shoot down Branson in his space plane, only to be thwarted at the last moment by the big, blue boy scout.
On the face of it, Branson's corporate cameo sure looks like another savvy marketing move from a guy whose media mastery has helped make Virgin one of the world's hippest and most valuable brands. The product placement also helps position Virgin in the public's mind as the world's leading space tourism company. It already has the best technology. In September, Virgin signed a deal worth as much as $21 million over 15 years to license the technology behind SpaceShipOne, designed by aviation maverick Burt Rutan and financed to the tune of $20 million by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen.
Five days later, SpaceShipOne, sporting a slick new "Virgin Galactic" paint job, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by rocketing into suborbital space (62 miles above the Earth) for the second time and landing safely in the Mojave Desert. A milestone for private, manned spaceflight to be sure and, Branson hopes, a launching pad for an eventual multibillion-dollar tourism industry that will begin flying thousands of people into space within two to three years on Virgin Galactic.
Branson and Allen aren't the only megarich guys with their eyes on the skies. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, another billionaire, has plans to build a research-testing site and spaceport for suborbital vehicles on a recently purchased 165,000-acre ranch near the town of Van Horn, Texas. Bezos has said little publicly about the venture, dubbed Blue Origin, other than that over the next seven years he intends to construct a $30 million, three-person ship that will take off, go suborbital, and land vertically. (Think of a rocket ship in one of those campy 1950s sci-fi flicks.)
Go-getters. Together, these space entrepreneurs are spending tens of millions of dollars to build a new aerospace industry from the ground up. This is far more ambitious than the occasional space stunt--sending millionaires such as Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth into space on Russian Soyuz rockets for $20 million a pop. If these Captain Kirks of industry are successful, space tourism will come of age.For the price of a blowout vacation to Europe or Hawaii--between $10,000 and $20,000 a seat or so--the middle class will be able to afford space travel. "That will change everything," says Patrick Collins, an economics professor at Japan's Azabu University and consultant to that nation's space program.
The space pioneers are talking more than just a quick jaunt. There are plans to build private spacecraft sturdy enough and fast enough to allow passengers to orbit the Earth like space shuttle astronauts. Others see space travel not merely as a journey but also as a destination, where orbiting tourists could actually dock at orbiting space retreats. Who knows? That Hilton Hotel famously featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey might finally become a reality.