Space rides going cheap

THE space tourism race has heated up with a second company offering tickets for suborbital rides at less than half the price of competitor Virgin Galactic's.

 
The Lynx can take you to the final frontier for the bargain price of $95,000

XCOR Aerospace Inc of California said it is partnering with long-time tour developer and operator Jules Klar, co-creator of the 1960s-era Europe on $5 a Day guides, to sell rides aboard its Lynx spaceship for $95,000.

The two-seat Lynx craft is under development at XCOR's Mojave Desert base and test flights are scheduled to begin in 2010. Danish investment banker Per Wimmer will take the first ride when paid flights begin, possibly as early as 2011.

The service is similar to trips being sold by Virgin Atlantic Airways' offshoot, Virgin Galactic, which plans to operate a fleet of suborbital spaceships based on the world's first privately developed manned spacecraft, SpaceShipOne.

Aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, built SpaceShipOne to win a $10 million ($15.5 million) prize in 2004. He is overseeing development of a seven-person craft known as SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic, which is offering flights into zero-gravity for $200,000.

Virgin Galactic expects to begin test flights in 2009 or 2010, with commercial service after that.

More than 200 would-be passengers have put down deposits of at least $20,000 since Virgin Galactic began selling tickets in 2005.

Lynx passengers will fly in the cockpit with a former space shuttle commander by their side. Richard Searfoss, a retired Air Force colonel and astronaut who made three spaceflights before leaving NASA in 1998, is XCOR's pilot.

The actual trip to an altitude of 38 miles (61km), high enough to escape much of earth's atmosphere but not high enough to go into orbit, takes less than 30 minutes from start to finish, but the package includes five nights at a luxury retreat in Arizona, where participants will be prepared for the flight and receive medical checkups.

Passengers will experience about a minute of weightlessness, but unlike Virgin's fliers, they will be strapped down and wearing pressurised spacesuits. They will be able to look out from wide cockpit windows to view Earth below.

"Flying with XCOR is going to be more like The Right Stuff," said Mr Searfoss, referring to the Tom Wolfe book, later adapted into a movie, about NASA's original Mercury Seven astronauts.

The company expects to be able to make up to four flights a day. The Lynx spacecraft takes off and lands horizontally like an airplane, with no need for a launch pad.

"As long as you have good airspace and a 10,000-foot (3033m) runway, you can fly them anywhere," said XCOR spokesman Douglas Graham.