24 March 2006

Commercial Space Travel?

Riding Space Mountain at Disneyland? Bah! Tourists will now travel to the final frontier for real thrills.

Two years after the first privately financed spaceflight jump-started a sleepy industry, more than a dozen companies are developing rocket planes to ferry ordinary rich people out of the atmosphere.

Several private companies will begin building their prototype vehicles this summer with plans to test-fly them as early as next year. If all goes well, the first tourist could hitch a galactic joy ride late next year or 2008 — pending approval by federal regulators.

Unlike the Cold War space race between the United States and Soviet Union that sent satellites into orbit and astronauts to the moon, this competition is bankrolled by entrepreneurs whose competition could one day make a blast into space cheap enough for the average Joe.

Over the past few years, three tourists have paid a reported $20 million each to ride aboard a Russian rocket to the orbiting international space station.

Prospective prices for the next round of personal spaceflights aren't quite so astronomical — a seat aboard one of the yet-to-be-built commercial spaceships will fetch between $100,000 to $250,000. Space entrepreneurs expect the price tag to drop once the market matures.

Instead of days in space, the commercial spaceships under development will only reach suborbital space, a region about 60 miles up that is generally considered the beginning of the rest of the universe.

Since the private spaceships lack the speed to go into orbit around Earth, the flights are essentially up and down experiences — lasting about two hours with up to five minutes of weightlessness.

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