The Lynx Mark I rocket plane, shown in this artist’s conception, would fly to an altitudeof 38 miles (61 kilometers) and serve as a test bed for a higher-flying Lynx Mark II.

A brand-new travel agency is selling front-row seats on an XCOR Aerospace rocket plane that will soar more than halfway to outer space, for $95,000 apiece. Arizona-based RocketShip Tours and XCOR threw open the ticket window today, even though the Lynx Mark I rocketship hasn’t had its first test flight yet.

The Lynx Mark I won’t fly as high as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo tourist rocketship, which is under construction just down the street from XCOR’s headquarters in Mojave, Calif. This first-generation Lynx is designed to take off and land like a regular airplane, and fly as high as 38 miles (61 kilometers). That’s short of the internationally accepted boundary of outer space (100 kilometers, or 62 miles), as well as the U.S. Air Force’s lower standard for spaceflight (50 miles).

But the view will be much the same, with a wide, curving stretch of Earth spreading out beneath a dark sky. What’s more, passengers would be able to see that view out the front-seat windows, because the Lynx is being built as a two-seater. In contrast, Virgin Galactic’s design, developed in cooperation with Mojave-based Scaled Composites, calls for the two pilots to sit up front with up to six passengers looking out the sides through portholes.

When it comes to spaceflight, smaller just might be better, said Charles Lurio, writer/publisher of The Lurio Report. Lurio recently had a sitdown in XCOR’s Lynx mockup, which helped him imagine how the actual half-hour trip would feel. “It’s almost like you’re doing a spacewalk without doing a spacewalk,” he told me.

The thrills on the Lynx are meant to be out of this world: The rocket-powered rise should result in about 90 seconds of in-your-seat weightlessness at the top, and passengers could experience up to 4 G’s of acceleration on the way down. The difference here is that Virgin Galactic’s passengers would get a longer dose of zero-G, with the ability to unstrap themselves from their seats and float around.

But the biggest difference is arguably the cost: Virgin Galactic’s space tour package is going for $200,000, while RocketShip Tours is aiming for a $95,000 price point.

Deposits have already been put down for 22 flights, with the first commercial ride going to Danish-born, London-based investment banker Per Wimmer.

Jeff Greason, XCOR’s co-founder and chief executive officer, said the kerosene-fueled Lynx Mark I is currently under construction at XCOR’s Mojave facility

.”I can’t tell you how great is is after nine years of slaving over a computer to see this thing actually taking shape on the shop floor,” Greason told reporters today at a Beverly Hills news briefing.

RocketShip Tours founder Jules Klar invites Per
Wimmer to sign an informed-consent form for a
future rocket flight on the Lynx Mark I. “I have no
choice,” Wimmer joked with a shrug

Testing in 2010, passengers in 2011?
XCOR’s plans call for the Lynx Mark I to start test flights in 2010 at the Mojave Air and Space Port, with former astronaut Rick Searfoss at the controls. Searfoss was also the pilot for XCOR’s EZ-Rocket prototype as well as the XCOR Rocket Racer, which completed a 40-flight test program this summer.

“I can’t wait to take the lessons learned from that into the Lynx flight test program,” Searfoss said.

Greason said the test program will “last as long as it needs to last.” The company is in discussions with the Federal Aviation Administration to get an experimental permit for those test flights. It would have to obtain a different kind of launch license for paying passengers.

If the test schedule goes as hoped, Wimmer should get his ride in 2011, said Andrew Nelson, XCOR’s chief operating officer. And he’s not the only one: Nelson said 22 customers have signed up for tickets, based on pre-announcement word of mouth. XCOR has designed the reusable Lynx to handle up to four flights a day.

From $5 a day to $95,000
The $95,000 tour package will be sold by RocketShip Tours, working through a network of trained travel agents, said Jules Klar, the travel venture’s founder. Klar is known in the travel industry for creating $5-A-Day Tours in 1961, in partnership with budget-travel pioneer Arthur Frommer. Later on, Klar established a high-end boutique travel operation called Great American Travel.

During today’s news briefing, Klar said space represented the next frontier for the travel industry. “It’s incumbent upon the civilian community to finally make space exploration what it should be, the most important and exciting thing of the 21st century,” he said.

Tickets would be sold through travel agents who have been trained as space tourist specialists, Klar said. “This isn’t selling a ticket from Los Angeles to Las Vegas,” he explained. “This is far more involved. It’s new, it’s exciting, and people who are involved in our sales effort have to be very knowledgeable.”

Klar said Lynx’s passengers would begin their adventure with five days of flight training (and most likely some leisure time, too) at Arizona’s Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa. During their stay, the tourists would attend briefings, undergo a medical evaluation – and then ride on an aerobatic airplane flight to get accustomed to the G-forces and closed quarters they’d feel on the Lynx.

A $20,000 deposit will get the would-be passenger assigned to the qualification program, Klar said, while those who pay the full $95,000 up front would get top priority for flight. For now, Mojave is XCOR’s home base, but the company says there’s no reason why the Lynx couldn’t fly out of any licensed U.S. spaceport (such as Oklahoma or New Mexico, for instance).

‘The ultimate adventure’
In order to ride the Lynx, passengers have to sign an informed-consent form acknowledging the flight’s risk. This is a condition set down by the FAA, aimed at reducing the liability of rocketship operators. During today’s news briefing, Klar brought out a form for Wimmer to sign.

“I’ve got no choice,” Wimmer said, with a shrug and a smile. He then bent down over the podium to add his signature.

“Now that you’ve got the document signed, I’m in a position to give you a ticket,” Klar said. Then he handed over ticket No. 1.

Wimmer described himself as a financier as well as a pioneer and adventurer, “a bit of a mix between 007 and Indiana Jones.” In October, he made one of the first tandem skydives over Mount Everest.

Wimmer said flying into space would be “the ultimate adventure of my lifetime.”

Competition heats up
Wimmer’s flight on Lynx would represent one big step toward that goal – but the financier has a diversified spaceflight portfolio. He also has reservations with Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures. Both those companies could start making space rides available in the 2010-or-beyond time frame.

Although the Lynx Mark I won’t rise to the 100-kilometer space boundary, it sets the stage for developing a more powerful Mark II model that could.

XCOR and Virgin Galactic aren’t the only ones developing rocketships for space tourism: In October, Armadillo Aerospace and the Rocket Racing League announced their own venture aimed at taking passengers to the edge of space. PlanetSpace and Rocketplane Global are among other companies entered in the suborbital space race.

Spaceflight isn’t just for tourists, of course: Like the other rocketships under development, the Lynx could send research experiments to the edge of space as well. NASA has been looking into the idea of flying experiments and researchers on commercial spaceships, and just today, California-based SpaceX announced that it was adding two DragonLab research missions to its flight lineup.

For all these ventures, the bottom line is usually … the bottom line. Does XCOR have the financial backing to follow through with development and testing?

XCOR is famously cautious about what it announces when. “In an industry where promises have sometimes outpaced performance, XCOR has tried to build a reputation where we really do what we say we’re going to do,” Greason said. Thus, today’s announcement signals that XCOR is putting its reputation on the line for the Lynx.

For more information about the venture announced today, check out the XCOR/RocketShip Tours news release. And for much, much more about space tourism and other such topics, click through our “New Space Race” section.

Correction for 11:40 a.m. ET Dec. 3: As XCOR Aerospace’s Randall Clague points out in a comment below, FAA regulations call for a paying spaceflight participant to give informed consent as a first step toward the actual flight. So I’ve removed a couple of words giving the impression that Wimmer and other passengers would just have to sign a consent form “eventually,” after they’ve started going through the process.