The (Private) Race for Space

We’ve written before about the incipient space tourism industry; yesterday the AP released a story that summarizes the gathering momentum of what was, not too long ago, a "sleepy industry":

Two years after the first privately financed space flight 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….

"This time, it’s personal. This space race is about getting ‘us’ into space," said space historian Andrew Chaikin.

For now, commercial space travel remains an exclusive club.

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.

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.

The article includes a summary of the major contenders in the space-tourism arena:

The biggest name is Virgin Galactic, a space tourism firm founded by British billionaire tycoon Richard Branson. Branson has partnered with Burt Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne in 2004 became the first private manned craft to reach space, to build a fleet of suborbital commercial spaceships called SpaceShipTwo….

_Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler is one of Virgin Galactic’s biggest competitors. Rocketplane Kistler, whose main investor is American businessman George French, hopes to start test flights next January and fly commercially by next summer. French owns several businesses including a space education company in Wisconsin….

_Space Adventures, a Virginia-based space travel agency best known for brokering three tourists to the international space station, is the latest entrant.

Last month, Space Adventures announced a partnership with members of the Ansari family – the major funders of the $10 million X Prize won by SpaceShipOne – to develop Russian-designed suborbital rockets that would launch from a proposed spaceport in the United Arab Emirates by 2008.

You can check out Rocketplane here and Virgin Galactic here.