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Blast-off for frequent flyers

Airline reward scheme offers space tickets

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Executives bored with criss-crossing the globe will soon have the chance to boldly go where few travelers have gone before: space.

Passengers who clock up air miles on Virgin Atlantic'sexternal linkFlying Club reward scheme are being given the chance to convert them into seats on pioneering space tourism flights.

The trips into orbit 62 miles above the Earth are being launched in 2008 by Virgin Galactic, which is on course to become the world's first commercial space flight operator.

"A journey into space seems like a distant dream for many, but this deal makes it even more achievable for our frequent travelers to be become astronauts," Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson said, announcing the deal.

"We have always tried to offer more unusual and fun rewards, like hot air ballooning and white water rafting, alongside our more conventional awards, but this means our Flying Club rewards are literally out of this world."

Virgin Galactic was established last year following the success of SpaceShipOne, the first privately-funded reusable space vehicle.

Virgin says it is investing $100 million in developing aircraft, based on the technology used in SpaceShipOne, capable carrying paying passengers into sub-orbital space.

The company has already begun taking bookings for the flights, which carry a price tag of $200,000.

"We expect the first Virgin Galactic space flight to take place in 2008, which gives our Flying Club members time to save up all their miles," Branson added.

The three-day trips with Virgin Galactic will include a gravity acclimatization flight on an astronaut training aircraft specially adapted to reproduce zero gravity.

Virgin says it expects its flights, considerably cheaper than the reported $20 million paid by the world's space tourist Dennis Tito, will drastically increase the number of astronauts from the current 444.

The bad news for those hoping to frequent fly their way into space is that a seat on Virgin Galactic will cost two million air miles -- the equivalent of 570 flights between New York and London.

Previously the highest reward offered by the airline was a break on Branson's private Caribbean island.

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