Europe Jumping Into Space Tourism Race

A decade ago, space tourism was just a dream, even for the richest of the rich. In 2001, Dennis Tito became the first space tourist, paying more than $20 million. Since then, a number of multi-millionaire and billionaires have made the journey on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. (The program is booked-up until 2009.) Now, space tourism might be possible for even six-figure savings accounts.

Looking to cash-in on the new desire for out-of-this-world travel, an explosion of commercial space tourism is underway. Most of the proposed programs propose suborbital flights, which still provide a traveler with a view of the earth’s curvature and a short period of weightlessness, without the danger and expense of full re-entry. Single tickets are expected to sell for $200 to $300 thousand dollars.

While a half-dozen companies are already developing plans (including RocketPlane and PlanetSpace), Virgin Galactic appears to be the most established. Galactic draws together the only company to actually put a privately developed craft into outerspace (California-based Scaled Composites) with the financial and marketing genius of British Billionaire, Richard Branson. The company will launch its “flights” as early as late-2009 from California’s Mojave Spaceport until New Mexico’s Spaceport America is complete (making Virgin Galactic essentially an American enterprise). Watch Virgin’s promotional simulation (very cool):

Now, Europe is expected to jump into the game with an announcement at this week’s Paris Air Show. From the London Times:

EUROPE is to enter manned space travel for the first time, almost half a century after the first cosmonaut orbited the Earth.

EADS Astrium, Europe’s biggest builder of satellites and rockets, is this week expected to announce plans to carry tourists into space. The firm is due to unveil plans at the Paris air show for a spacecraft that will carry tourists out of the atmosphere for a brief ride at 3,000mph before ferrying them back to Earth.

Europe stood on the sidelines during the space race between America and Russia in the cold war, largely because of the vast cost. The first human space flight carried Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut, once round the Earth in 1961, and in 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon.

Europe’s programme, conducted through the European Space Agency, has confined itself to unmanned probes, such as the Giotto mission of 1986, which explored the tail of Halley’s comet. However, European astronauts, including the Britons Helen Sharman and Michael Foale, have flown on Russian and Nasa missions.

A spokesman for EADS Astrium said: “We are going to reveal a space tourism project next week for the Paris air show.” The scheme is thought to be the first step in a plan to take space tourists into orbit and even to dock at a “space hotel”.