Slow start for space tourism

2009-10-04 14:10

Los Angeles - When a private spaceship soared over California to claim a $10 million prize, daredevil venture capitalist Alan Walton was 68 and thought he'd soon be on a rocket ride of his own.

Walton plunked down $200 000 to be among the first space tourists to make a suborbital thrill-ride high above the Earth aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceship.

Now he intends to ask for his deposit back if there's no fixed launch date by his 74th birthday next April.

"This was going to be the highlight of my old age," he said.

It has been five years since SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft, captured the Ansari X Prize on October 4 2004, by demonstrating that a reusable rocket capable of carrying passengers could fly more than 100km high twice within two weeks - showing reliability and commercial viability.

Taking longer than anticipated

Enthusiasm over SpaceShipOne's feats was so high that year that even before the prize-winning flight, British mogul Richard Branson announced an agreement to use the technology in a second-generation design, SpaceShipTwo, to fly commercial passengers into space under the Virgin Galactic banner by 2007.

It seemed that anyone who had the money would soon be experiencing what SpaceShipOne pilot Brian Binnie called "literally a rush - you light that motor off and the world wakes up around you." And then the sensation of weightlessness and the sight of the world far below.

Turning the dream into reality has taken longer than many expected in those days, and spaceflight remains the realm of government astronauts and a handful of extraordinarily wealthy people who have paid millions for rides on Russian rockets to the international space station.

X Prize founder Peter Diamandis says, however, that things have not been at a standstill.

More than $1 billion has been invested in the industry, regulatory roadblocks have been addressed and as many as three different passenger spaceships will emerge in the next 18 to 24 months and begin flying, he said.

Signs of progress

"You'll get another large injection of excitement in public interest once those vehicles begin operating and the public starts getting flown," he said.

Freight business owner Edwin Sahakian has seen signs of progress. He and four other Virgin Galactic customers got a peek at SpaceShipTwo this summer during a visit to the Scaled Composites plant at the Mojave Airport, where it is being built by maverick aviation designer Burt Rutan.

The project was dealt a setback two years ago when three technicians were killed in an explosion while testing SpaceShipTwo's propellant system. Scaled Composites, which was bought by Northrop Grumman Corporation, was cited for five workplace violations and fined $28 870 in connection with the blast that also critically injured three men.

Like SpaceShipOne, its successor will be carried aloft by a special jet aircraft dubbed the WhiteKnightTwo. The rocketship will be released at high altitude before the pilot ignites its motor. After reaching the top of its trajectory, it will fall back into the atmosphere and glide to a landing.

Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said testing of WhiteKnightTwo is in full swing.

'A few years' behind

The completed SpaceShipTwo is expected to be unveiled in December in Mojave and first test flights will begin next year, with full-fledged space launches to its maximum altitude by or during 2011, Whitehorn said.

But no timetable for the start of commercial operations is being released, he said.

Whitehorn said Virgin Galactic continues to hold $40 million in deposits by 300 customers.

X Prize Foundation President Robert K Weiss acknowledged that "things are a few years behind what was originally anticipated" but said he is certain there will be commercial spaceflights within this decade and the interest of people will be reinvigorated.

- AP
Read more on:    space tourism
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