US firm offers cut price space tourism

A California company is challenging Sir Richard Branson for a slice of the nascent space tourism market by offering budget rocket trips to the edge of space for half the price of its British rival..

By Catherine Elsworth in Los Angeles

XCOR Aerospace, based in Mojave, says 20 people have already bought tickets to fly aboard its private, two-seater Lynx rocket ship about 37 miles above the Earth from where they can gaze down on their home planet and experience weightlessness.

The company is offering the trips for $95,000 (£ 60,000), about half the $200,000 Sir Richard’s Virgin Galactic will charge passengers to ride aboard its eight-seater craft some 62 miles above the Earth.

Announcing the cut-price sub-orbital service on Tuesday, XCOR said its first passenger would be Per Wimmer, a Danish adventurer and investment banker based in London who is also an investor in the aerospace company.

He hopes his flight will take place in 2011, after a series of test flights in 2010 – the Lynx, which is designed to take off and land like an aeroplane, has yet to make a test run. The craft holds just one passenger and its pilot, former NASA space shuttle commander Rick Searfoss.

Virgin Galactic is meanwhile planning longer, higher flights that it hopes to begin operating in 2010 aboard a fleet of rockets modelled on the world’s first privately developed manned spacecraft, SpaceShipOne.

Built by pioneering aircraft engineer Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites, also based in Mojave, SpaceShipOne won a 10 million dollar prize in 2004 after completing three successful journeys into sub-orbital space.

Rutan is overseeing development of the first Virgin Galactic craft, dubbed SpaceShipTwo. The company, an offshoot of Virgin Atlantic Airways, hopes to begin test flights in 2009 or 2010.

Since the company began selling tickets in 2005, more than 200 would-be passengers have put down deposits of at least $20,000.

XCOR said it was teaming up with Jules Klar, the tour developer and operator who co-created the 1960s-era ‘Europe on $5 a Day’ guides, to market the Lynx spaceship rides via his Arizona-based company RocketShip Tours.

He said the 95,000 price tag was evidence competition was bringing down the cost of space exploration, giving consumers access to “an out of this world experience – a front row seat to the edge of space.”

Although the actual trip to sub-orbital space and back takes less than 30 minutes, the package will include five nights at a luxury Arizona retreat where passengers will prepare for their flight, Mr Klar said. On board, they will experience about a minute of weightlessness but, unlike Virgin Galactic passengers, will be strapped in and wearing spacesuits.

XCOR hopes its Lynx craft will make about four trips a day when operational.