As a kid, I first came to know about Branson and his Virgin Group when he came to India, promoting his Airline, Virgin Atlantic, driving around Delhi in a red Auto Rickshaw. Then came his Mobile Store and Virgin Mobile that offers the user cash on incoming calls!.
Richard's vision for space travel was revealed way back in 2000 when he said he will be investing substantially in developing a reusable interplanetary transport vehicle and teamed up with Burt Rutan of Mojave space Ventures & Scaled Composites.
Burt Rutan is known as the most influential airline designer and scientist in this era. Scaled Composites, based in Mojave Space port, reveled that the first commercial operations of its space crafts, referred to as White Knight, will begin by end of 2009. They did have a setback earlier with a major accident last year while testing.
Virgin Galatic's space launch system comprises of a Mother Ship - White Knight that takes the space ship to the upper atmosphere, from where, the rocket propelled space ship will disengage from the mother ship and accelerate to mach 4 speeds to attain the desired orbit. It later glides using its "using its wings" and re enters earth's atmosphere using a path similar to the one used by NASA spaceships.
As White Knight II readies for its test flights, its good to see that his investments will actually be beneficial to the whole of Mankind and not a select few richies. The White Knight research lead to the development of a highly fuel efficient carrier which is also the most advanced payload carrier now and is built entirely of carbon fiber.