Sir Richard Branson excels at two things: expanding his ubiquitous Virgin brand through shrewdly negotiated joint ventures; and promoting them via an unerring sixth-sense for headline-scooping.

His willing accomplices are newshounds across all five continents - media Rottweilers transformed into Chihuahuas by the master-huckster's flair.

The latest to fall for Branson's Barnum touch is America's top-selling daily newspaper, USA Today, whose Tuesday edition carried a story from the colourful billionaire's publicity mill that Virgin Galactic is set to launch the world's first tourist space flights in 2008 and has sold tickets to around 150 passengers.

Among the D-list celebrities who have allegedly booked tickets for the tentative suborbital maiden flight are former soap actress Victoria Principal, designer Philippe Starck and - prepare to gasp - "a senior member of an unidentified British royal family".

Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn, a long-serving Branson lieutenant, claimed to reporters: "Everything is progressing on time and on budget. I think we will be pulling it out of the hanger next summer."

The spacecraft is based on SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 won the $10 million Ansari X prize for the first private organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.

Virgin's craft will piggyback on a larger plane, taking-off from a site in the Mojave desert, then separating at 50,000 feet to accelerate into sub-orbital space.

It says here.

Data sourced from USA Today Online; additional content by WARC staff