SPACE TOURISM: PRICE WARS IN ZERO-G

IRENE KLOTZ Reuters

December 10, 2008

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. -- The space-tourism race heated up last week, when a second company began offering tickets for suborbital rides at less than half the price of competitor Virgin Galactic.

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

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, Calif.,
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built SpaceShipOne to win a $10-million prize in 2004. Rutan 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 U.S. Air Force colonel and astronaut who made three space flights before leaving the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1998, is XCOR's pilot. The Lynx spacecraft takes off and lands horizontally like an airplane.

The actual trip to an altitude of 61 kilometres, 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 Klar said the package includes five nights at a luxury retreat in Arizona, where participants will be prepared for the flight and receive medical checkups.