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First family of space: Richard Branson and kids will blaze new trail

The family that soars together, scores together: Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is due to become the first father to join his children on a trip to outer space when they ride the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane next year. But he won't be the last.

"We've had people like myself who booked the whole spaceship for their families," Branson told NBC News on Friday, "and I think you know it'll be just a magnificent experience for everybody."

Branson, the British-born chairman of the Virgin Group, has been saying for years that he'd be on Virgin Galactic's first passenger spaceflight with his family. But now the reality is settling in — not just for the 63-year-old billionaire, but also for his two children: 31-year-old Holly and 28-year-old Sam.

"I think any rational person would be slightly nervous, but it's going to be the most incredible experience ever," Sam said during the NBC interview.

Although parents and children have never journeyed together in space before, there are a few precedents for off-world families: NASA astronauts Mark Lee and Jan Davis flew together as husband and wife on the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992. In addition, there have been at least three father-and-son teams of astronauts, and one set of twin astronauts — but those fliers were never in space simultaneously with their kin.

Tracking the tests
SpaceShipTwo still has to go through months of flight tests, and the elder Branson said the craft would be proven safe before he gets on board at New Mexico's Spaceport America. "My wife would never forgive me if none of us came back, so we'll make absolutely sure it's well and truly tested," he said.

The test flights are expected to rise above 100 kilometers (62 miles) in altitude to hit the outer-space frontier by early next year. If the tests go well and the Federal Aviation Administration clears Virgin Galactic to take on passengers, the Bransons could get their suborbital space ride by mid-2014. However, Richard Branson said that time frame isn't set in stone: "It's rocket science, so it does take a little longer than one expects."

Under the terms of a deal announced on Friday, NBC will document every step along the way — not only for NBC News, but also on other NBCUniversal TV platforms including CNBC, MSNBC, Syfy and the Weather Channel. NBC is set to air a prime-time special on the night before takeoff, and the launch will be the focus of a three-hour live event on TODAY, hosted by Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie.

"There's just a billion stories, and we'll have access to all of them," said Sharon Scott, president and general manager of NBC's Peacock Productions.

Making history
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.

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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.

The craft is designed to carry two pilots and six passengers. About 640 customers have already signed up for rides, at a price of $200,000 to $250,000 per seat. It hasn't yet been determined who will ride along with the Bransons on the first flight.

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. 

Branson and SpaceShipTwo's other fliers would get a rocket-powered roller coaster ride to the edge of space, four to six minutes of weightlessness at the top, and a hard-to-beat view of the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space. After rising to maximum altitude, the plane makes a gliding descent back to the runway.

Star power
The passenger list includes celebrities have already made their reservations for the ride, including Lady GagaJustin BieberLeonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher. There'll also be an NBC reality TV 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.

Branson is already well into the training routine for next year's spaceflight: He's been taking simulated SpaceShipTwo flights and zero-G airplane flights since 2007. But there's one simulation that he hasn't yet experienced: "Gravity," the blockbuster movie that shows in graphic 3-D detail what can go wrong in outer space.

"I hear it is a great film," Branson told NBC News, "and we'll watch it after we've been to space, I think."

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Richard Branson: ‘The aim is to make space travel accessible to the masses’

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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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