The 500th paying customer has signed up to ride Virgin Galactic's private spaceship, and that customer is Ashton Kutcher.
The actor, currently starring in the CBS TV comedy "Two and a Half Men," will be among the first people to ride Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, which will carry paying customers up to the edge of space and back.
"I gave Ashton a quick call to congratulate and welcome him," Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson wrote in a blog post announcing Kutcher's reservation on March 19. "He is as thrilled as we are at the prospect of being among the first to cross the final frontier (and back!) with us and to experience the magic of space for himself."
SpaceShipTwo is a suborbital spaceship built to carry six passengers and two pilots. It is launched from the air using a carrier plane known as WhiteKnightTwo. The brief space trip, which will offer passengers a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of Earth from the blackness of space, costs $200,000 per seat.
Virgin Galactic's first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, the VSS Enterprise, and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership have completed a series of manned glide tests. The next step will be for WhiteKnightTwo to carry the space plane up to midair, and then ignite SpaceShipTwo's rocket engines for a powered test flight.
"We are guided by safety and so will ensure that everything is just as safe as it can possibly be before we start commercial services — particularly as I will be on the first commercial flight with my kids!" Branson said.
Virgin Galactic officials have said they hope the first customers will ride in 2013 or 2014. The flights will launch and land from the new Spaceport America facility in southern New Mexico.
The addition of Kutcher to the Virgin flight roster should give the burgeoning company a boost of visibility. In fact, it's not far off from a suggestion put forward by astronomer Seth Shostak last month at the 2012 Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference.
Shostak proposed that sending a celebrity on a suborbital flight would offer the kick the industry needed to gain momentum.
"My suggestion is, be sure to send Justin Bieber on one of these flights early on," Shostak said. "If there's more interest, there are more customers. If there are more customers, there's more technical development. It's a positive feedback loop, and obviously that's good."