NBC to air Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson's trek to space

NBC and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson on Friday announced an agreement to track the development of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane on television — climaxing in a flight that will put Branson and his children into outer space.

If all the flight tests proceed according to plan, that inaugural passenger spaceflight could take off from New Mexico's Spaceport America during a special edition of NBC's TODAY show next August, said Sharon Scott, president and general manager of Peacock Productions.

"They are hoping for August, but it's completely engineering-driven," Scott told NBC News in advance of Friday's announcement on TODAY. "There's no guarantee for that. August is the desire."

Branson said in a statement that Virgin Galactic was "thrilled that NBCUniversal will join us on our exciting first journey to space."

"In this first chapter of commercial space travel, we will help make space accessible and inspire countless more people to join us in the pursuit of space exploration and science innovation," he said.

Live television event
NBC News' Peacock Productions will chronicle the SpaceShipTwo project across a wide spectrum of NBCUniversal brands and platforms, including NBCNews.com, NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Syfy, The Weather Channel and more. NBC is set to air a prime-time special on the night before Branson's launch — followed by a three-hour live event on TODAY, hosted by Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie.

Branson, 63, is the founder of the Virgin Group. Forbes' latest billionaire list sets his net worth at $4.6 billion, putting him at No. 6 among British billionaires.

He's due to be accompanied on SpaceShipTwo's inaugural flight by his children, 31-year-old Holly and 28-year-old Sam. The other spacefliers have not yet been identified. The rocket plane, which is currently undergoing flight tests at California's Mojave Air and Space Port, is designed for two pilots and six passengers. About 640 customers are paying up to $250,000 a seat for the ride.

Deep-pocketed passengers have made multimillion-dollar journeys to the International Space Station before, but SpaceShipTwo will be the first privately developed spaceship to take on customers. "Without a doubt, Sir Richard and his children taking the first commercial flight into space will go down in history as one of the most memorable events on television," Scott said in Friday's statement.

Scott told NBC News that the broadcast deal "is going to start right away."

"Any milestone that happens between now and the launch will be put exclusively on our platforms. ... There's just a billion stories, and we'll have access to all of them," she said.

  • Slideshow Photos

    Mark Greenberg / Ron Dantowitz-Clay Center Observ

    First Feather Flight (FF01) of SpaceShipTwo

    The making of SpaceShipTwo

    Click through scenes from the construction of Virgin Galactic's suborbital passenger spaceship.

  • First Feather Flight (FF01) of SpaceShipTwo

    The making of SpaceShipTwo

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    Birds of a feather... -

    SpaceShipTwo in full feather wing mode on a rapid descent from its drop altitude of 51,500 feet over Mojave,Calif., on Wednesday May 4, 2011. The feathered wing is at its full 65 degree angle and remained at this angle for 1 minute and 15 seconds. The craft descended in this configuration at a near vertical angle at a rate of 15,500 feet per minute. The craft was reconfigured to normal glide mode at 33,500 feet. All objectives of the flight were met. The flight duration of SpaceShipTwo following release was approximatel 11 minutes and 5 seconds. This photograph was taken with high powered telescopes from the ground.

    Virgin Galactic / Virgin Galactic
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    The making of SpaceShipTwo

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    Golden Gate ... to space? -

    A new Virgin America A320 jet, aptly named "My Other Ride Is a Spaceship," flies in tandem with the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its mothership over the Golden Gate Bridge on April 6. The aircraft landed at San Francisco International Airport, becoming the first planes to arrive at the new $388 million, 640,000-square-foot Terminal 2. SpaceShipTwo is expected to begin rocket-powered suborbital test flights sometime in the next year - not from San Francisco, but from the Mojave Air and Space Port near Los Angeles.

    Virgin America / Virgin America
  • Image: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, First Commercial Spacecraft, Unveiled In CA

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    Ready for testing -

    Onlookers inspect the back end of the mated WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo planes at the Mojave Air and Space Port during the rocket plane's Dec. 7 unveiling. The eight-person SpaceShipTwo, which was christened the VSS Enterprise, is the first of a series of space planes due to start commercial service in the 2011-2012 time frame. Tests of the rocket plane were to begin within days of the unveiling.

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • Image: Debut of SpaceShipTwo

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    Spaceship's debut -

    Illuminated by colored lights, the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is attached to its WhiteKnightTwo mothership during its rollout on Dec. 7 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

    EPA / EPA
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    Welcome aboard -

    Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson prepares for flight inside the mothership Eve's cockpit at the EAA AirVenture air show in Wisconsin on July 27, 2009. The airplane's pilot, Pete Siebold, and Scaled Composites engineer Bob Morgan help with the preparations.

    Virgin Galactic / Virgin Galactic
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    First step to space -

    The WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane known as Eve flies over mountains during a test flight from its home base at California's Mojave Air and Space Port. Eve is to serve as the mothership for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. SpaceShipTwo's test flights are due to begin in 2010.

    Robert Scherer / Robert Scherer
  • Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Cabin Goes On Show

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    Riding the wave -

    Virgin Group employees sit in the cabin of a prototype Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft at London's Science Museum in February 2007. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to the edge of outer space for a few minutes of weightlessness and an out-of-this-world view. The fare is $200,000 per passenger.

    Getty Images / Getty Images
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    A ride for the boss -

    Virgin Galactic's billionaire founder, Richard Branson, flashes a grin as he stands in front on VMS Eve, the WhiteKnightTwo airplane that will eventually carry SpaceShipTwo to its air launch. Branson took his first flight on Eve in July 2009 at the EAA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis. The plane is named after Branson's mother, who inspired the painting on the fuselage.

    Virgin Galactic / Virgin Galactic
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    Window seats -

    Windows dot the interior of the SpaceShipTwo passenger cabin, as seen during an early stage of the rocket plane's construction. The design is aimed at making sure each of the six passengers has a view of the curving Earth and the black sky of space from a height of 62 miles (100 kilometers).

    Virgin Galactic / Virgin Galactic
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    Fire away! -

    The full-scale rocket motor to be used in SpaceShipTwo is successfully test-fired on May 6, 2009, at the Northrop Grumman test facility in San Clemente, Calif. The hybrid rocket motor was built by Scaled Composites and SpaceDev.

    Virgin Galactic / Virgin Galactic
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    The making of SpaceShipTwo -

    Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is the result of a years-long development effort, following up on the successful suborbital spaceflights of SpaceShipOne in 2004. In this photo, SpaceShipTwo's passenger cabin is being placed on the fuselage inside Scaled Composites' hangar in Mojave, Calif.

    Virgin Galactic / Virgin Galactic

Private spaceflight's past and future
Virgin Galactic has been working on SpaceShipTwo for almost a decade, dating back to 2004 and the prize-winning flights of SpaceShipOne, the world's first private-sector space plane. Branson's Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments have put hundreds of millions of dollars into the development project.

So far, SpaceShipTwo has been flown through more than two dozen glide flights — plus two rocket-powered test outings, in April and September. Another powered test is expected within a month. SpaceShipTwo's test pilots plan to start crossing the 100-kilometer-high (62-mile-high) boundary of outer space "by early next year," Branson said on TODAY.

During each flight, SpaceShipTwo is hooked up to a mothership called WhiteKnightTwo and carried up to an altitude of about 50,000 feet for launch. The rocket plane is dropped from the mothership, and a few seconds later, SpaceShipTwo's pilots light up the hybrid rocket engine for the ascent. After rising to maximum altitude, the plane makes a gliding descent back to the runway.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to grant a launch license for SpaceShipTwo sometime during the first quarter of 2014. Only then would the plane be cleared to take on customers.

Branson and SpaceShipTwo's other fliers would get a rocket-powered roller coaster ride to the edge of space, a few minutes of weightlessness at the top, and a hard-to-beat view of the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.

A cocktail party's worth of celebrities have already made their reservations for the ride, including Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher. There'll also be a television series titled "Space Race," in which contestants vie for a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo. That program will be produced by Mark Burnett, the mastermind of "Survivor" and other reality-TV shows. "Space Race" will air during prime time on NBC.

"Some number of weeks or months after the maiden launch, Mark's series will hit the air," Peacock Productions' Scott said.

More about SpaceShipTwo:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.

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