They call it New Space, a commercial effort to send people into space as tourists. Entrepreneurs are creating startups that are flying tourists into space, for a fee. One of the companies doing so is Virgin Galactic, a startup funded by billionaire Richard Branson of the Virgin Group.

We caught up with George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, at the recent Digital Life Design conference in Munich. He thinks that as early as next year he can send you up into space and experience weightlessness and see the Earth from a unique point of view.

If these entrepreneurs succeed, they’ll be sending a lot more spacecraft into outer space than governments will. And hopefully they will create new technologies that everyone will benefit from, just as NASA’s 1960s space program led to a lot of cool new technologies that were exploited by entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

Whitesides (below) says his company will charge a mere $200,000 for its trips. Competitors charge much more. Space Adventures, funded by Eric Anderson, charges $20 million or more to send its astronaut tourists into space. Game designer Richard Garriott flew to the space station on a SpaceX flight that cost $30 million. Space Adventures offers sub-orbital flights that are cheaper. But Whitesides says that Branson’s goal is to make it possible for anyone to go into space.

Each Virgin Galactic launch will have six passengers and two pilots. They will fly up into sub-orbital space, stay there for five minutes, and then come back down again. It’s not much time, but that’s what makes it affordable. Whitesides says the company is testing its space ships now and plans on sending its first commercial flight into space in 2012. The hope is that such spacecraft could one day be used to fly from San Francisco to New York in a matter of minutes, not hours.

Branson’s company has funded the creation of two space ships developed over the past six years with technology from Scaled Composites. The design is based on that of SpaceShipOne, which was piloted into space twice starting in 2004. Designed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, the spacecraft won the Ansari X Prize. That ship now hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The two new Virgin Galactic ships are called WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. They’re being prepped at place called Spaceport America in New Mexico. Over time, Whitesides says, it will get cheaper to send tourists into space. So you better book your flight now.

I met up with Whitesides at the Digital Life Design conference in Munich earlier this week. Check out my video interview with him below. And here’s a link to Digital Life Design’s video of Whitesides’ panel with Eric Anderson of Space Adventures and Spencer Reiss of Wired magazine.

Disclosure: The Digital Life Design conference paid my way to Munich so I could moderate a panel. VentureBeat’s coverage of the conference remains objective and independent.


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