Actor to be 500th space tourist
Sir Richard Branson has said his venture to launch paying tourists into space has netted its 500th customer - US actor Ashton Kutcher.
The billionaire made the announcement on his blog, saying he gave the actor a quick call to congratulate him.
"He is as thrilled as we are at the prospect of being among the first to cross the final frontier (and back!) with us and to experience the magic of space for himself," Sir Richard wrote.
Kutcher is among dozens of Hollywood names, international entrepreneurs, scientists, space buffs and others who have made deposits to be among the first to reach the edge of the Earth on the Virgin Galactic spaceline.
Sir Richard has said the aim is to one day make travelling to space safe and affordable for the masses, not just those who can afford the current 200,000 US dollar (£126,000) ticket price.
Virgin Galactic is in the final stages of its test flight programme. The company plans to begin commercial operations next year and Sir Richard said he and his children plan to be on the first commercial flight.
Virgin Galactic customers will ride in a six-seat spacecraft that looks like a small plane, with wings near the rear that sweep upward. Once the craft and its mother ship reach a certain altitude, the smaller craft is released and its rockets are fired, pushing passengers back into their seats for the trip to suborbital space.
Customers will get a 150-minute flight with about five minutes of weightlessness and views of Earth that until now only astronauts have been able to experience.
"I still sometimes have to pinch myself that it's for real," Sir Richard said of the venture. "Ashton is joining a fast expanding group of true pioneers who are on their way to a life changing experience and a place in the history books."