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spaceshiptwo Richard Branson, the brilliant billionaire owner of all things Virgin-branded, has been in the travel news quite a bit over the past few days, and it’s been an interesting mix of stories — good, bad and ugly.

Yesterday, Branson’s youngest stroke of travel company genius, Virgin Galactic, took a giant leap closer to its ultimate goal of space tourism when SpaceShipTwo ignited its rocket motor for the first time in mid-flight, bringing the spacecraft to a speed of Mach 1.2. With this supersonic test out of the way, Virgin Galactic anticipates making its first passenger space trips next year, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The company will offer daily trips to sub-orbital space, including about 10 minutes of zero gravitation. The price tag? $200,000. Considering Virgin Galactic has already taken 580 reservations worth about $70 million in deposits for a company that can’t yet deliver, you’ve got to give Branson credit for his genius.

But like Robert Louis Stevenson’s brilliant scientist Dr. Jekyll, Branson has not so much a darker side as an idiotic Mr. Hyde side. Sometimes he just does or says stupid things.

For instance, Virgin America recently launched a new seat-to-seat delivery service on flights. What exactly does that mean, you ask? Well, it could be a mom sitting a few rows away from her kids, having a snack box delivered to them. Or — and here’s what USA Today believes Branson has in mind with the service — it could be a passenger sending a drink to another passenger, just as he might do in a bar if he were, say, attempting to pick someone up.

Here’s how it works. Fliers find their intended recipient on a digital seat map, select an item to be delivered, swipe a credit card and then follow up with a text message using the seat-to-seat chat function.

Um, yuck. I guess if you’re happy to hear from a stranger sitting a few rows away it’s not so bad, but what if you’re totally uninterested? It’s not like you can go anywhere.

Not Branson’s most genius moment, if you ask us.

The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room

But it gets worse.

On Sunday, Branson criticized the British Foreign Office and other Western governments for issuing warnings about terrorism in travel advisory format.

Huh?

As reported by The Independent, Branson says that by warning people of the risk of attacks, governments are giving in to terrorists and harming those countries in the process. These warnings, he continued, should be discarded. Instead, Branson suggests that rather than warn people against visiting these places, people should be encouraged to participate in tourism and trade, in order to aid them. He cited a British Foreign Office bulletin about Egypt, an Australian government warning about Bali and a U.S. State Department alert on Kenya, which he said contributed to the decline in tourist numbers in these countries.

The Foreign Office soundly rejected Branson’s suggestion, saying it has a responsibility to make sure British citizens have the necessary information to make their own informed decisions.

While we understand the need to avoid needless monetary damage to a country, we have to side with the Foreign Office on this one. We’d rather know what our risks are before we make a decision, so as not to walk into a potentially hazardous situation.

Traveling in a Developing Country: 11 Dos and Don’ts

What do you think? Is Virgin Galactic a stroke of genius? Do you want someone you don’t know on a flight to be able to buy you a drink? Should governments issue travel alerts that include warnings about terrorism? Let us know below.

– written by Dori Saltzman

earth and moonIn addition to being Presidents’ Day, yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic trip into space. Although there was some planning, he packed no bag and he didn’t have much choice in his travel wardrobe. And he certainly didn’t have an annoying travel companion. In 1962, Glenn boarded Friendship 7, not much more than a converted ballistic nuclear missile, and was blasted into space, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.

There was no travel insurance. In fact, several earlier launch attempts were abject failures. NASA scientists weren’t even sure if Glenn’s eyesight would survive zero-G weightlessness. But NASA was in a hurry. There was a rush to get Glenn in orbit, whether it was safe or not, whether it was possible or not. Russia had beaten the U.S. in the space race five years earlier by launching Sputnik, a silver ball with a flashing light on it. National pride was on the line.

Now that NASA’s manned space program is idle, the only ride into space for an American astronaut is aboard a Russian rocket. Yet the demand by civilians for space tourism is growing. It’s a final frontier for those who have checked everything else off their must-see list.

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vss enterpriseThe U.K.’s Sir Richard Branson began organizing Virgin Galactic in 2004 and began test flights in 2008. Virgin Galactic has its sights set on launching wealthy adventurers into orbit from the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, currently underway in New Mexico. The space vehicles are “designed and built with revolutionary, but proven technology” according to Virgin Galactic’s Web site, with safety “engrained in the culture of our space line operation.”

To experience space travel, you’ll have to be age 22 to 88 at the time of the launch and endure two days of G-force and safety training. From 50,000 feet in the air, not the ground, you’ll accelerate to about 3,000 mph, nearly four times the speed of sound, and launched to about 68 miles above the Earth’s surface. The total trip takes about 3 hours, with only a few minutes out of your seat to experience weightlessness and the stunning views.

9 Destinations to Visit in 2012

Although Virgin Galactic has been taking deposits to hold reservations on SpaceShipTwo since 2005, the price has been reduced and will continue to go down. The current starting price for flights is $200,000 with refundable deposits starting from $20,000.



– written by Jodi Thompson