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Bargain blast-off: Space tourism opens up

A virtual photo of XCOR Aerospace's Lynx was unveiled in Beverly Hills, California, on March 26, 2008. The Lynx, a suborbital winged vehicle will carry a pilot and a passenger to the edge of space and return about 25 minutes later, landing like an airplane. The first flight will take place in the FAA-licensed Mojave Air and Space port in California in 2010.


Compared to the going rate for space travel, the $2,200 (U.S.) it cost Robert Jacobson to fly a plane used to train Russian cosmonauts was bargain-basement cheap.

Sure, soaring 6,000 feet above the Florida gulf coast in an L-39 military jet is nothing like going into orbit (Mr. Jacobson's ultimate dream). The 33-year-old investor would have to blast more than 60 miles higher to hit the so-called "edge of space," and another 149 miles to reach the International Space Station.

But, at least through Aurora Aerospace, a new "astronaut training centre" founded by a Canadian living in Tampa Bay, Mr. Jacobson got a bird's eye view of Earth without slapping down as much as $35-million – what today's space travellers reportedly pay for a seat on a Russian rocket.

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Yesterday, Quebec billionaire Guy Laliberté confirmed that he will be the next paying passenger to visit the International Space Station. When a Soyuz rocket carries him off in September at a price tag of more than $25-million, the 49-year-old Cirque du Soleil founder will be the seventh person to become what the Canadian Space Agency calls a space tourist – a title so far held only by dot-com executives and millionaires.

"I am a privileged person and I recognize that," Mr. Laliberté said at a news conference broadcast live from Moscow yesterday, adding the purpose of his mission will be to raise awareness about water issues.

Tycoons, however, may not have a monopoly on space tourism for long.

A growing number of companies are vying to bring space travel to the masses. A half-dozen American companies, all funded by private investors, are currently developing rockets they say will shuttle passengers to space, with some predicting those flights will take off in the next few years.

More than 250 people have put down the full $200,000 (U.S.) fare in anticipation for the first suborbital flights from Virgin Galactic, a company founded by Sir Richard Branson. Other companies are also working on vehicles, including Space Exploration Technologies and XCOR Aerospace, are planning spacecraft of their own.

About 30 people have paid part or all of the $95,000 (U.S.) fee for flights on the first working Lynx Suborbital Vehicle, said XCOR chief operating officer Andrew Nelson. "We certainly expect the flights to go."

Steve McLean, president of the Canadian Space Agency and former astronaut, says he saw it coming 25 years ago. "I saw the entrepreneurship of people driving that sort of thing: they have something that's quite possible," he said. "And then once you have that, there are people willing to pay."

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The idea of people paying their way into space became a reality in 2001, when Dennis Tito, a financier, flew to the International Space Station for a reported $20-million aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Since then, seven more people have put money down and strapped in through Space Adventures, the Virginia-based company that arranges the trips with the Russian federal space agency. The agency launches taxi missions to the International Space Station every six months to rotate the crew, and it is during these missions that paying private citizens such as Mr. Laliberté, who have undergone months of medical testing and training, are allowed to travel.

The technology now in development by companies like Virgin Galactic would be used for suborbital flights, meaning instead of going into orbit the ships soar about 300,000 feet out of the atmosphere to the so-called "edge of space." Passengers would gaze at the curvature of the Earth for about 30 minutes before gravity sucks the vehicle back down.

Other companies may not promise to get their clients to space, but they do take advantage of the desire of consumers to prove they've got the right stuff to get there.

Orbital Outfitters, a company co-founded by a Hollywood special effects executive, is developing space suits they are marketing to private space travel companies. Their vision, according to the company website, is "a future when people of all sorts … can fly into space in safety, comfort and style, knowing they are protected by the highest quality, best looking gear available on planet Earth … or space."

Starting at $4,950 per person, the Seattle-based Zero-G Corporation offers flights that allow its customers – which have included Martha Stewart and Stephen Hawking – to float like an astronaut.

Aurora Aerospace, launched a month ago by Canadian physician Howard Chipman, offers options including the $8,000 "astronaut qualification package," which includes Hypoxia training, a 45-minute L-39 jet flight, a zero-gravity flight and a flight suit.

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Dr. Chipman, a certified flight instructor, said he decided to sink over $500,000 into his company because of his enduring love of space, and belief that it's only a matter of time before regular people travel there. His plan is to buy a Lynx vehicle and offer suborbital flights, and envisions a day when ticket prices will be comparable to a flight from Toronto to Australia.

"Will it be in the next five years? No," he says. "But it could be in the next 20."

Industry watchers say that could be too optimistic. Henry Hertzfeld, a professor at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the personal space travel industry has been aided by favourable U.S. regulatory decisions.

But, he said, with the economy faltering, the biggest hurdle will be generating the millions of dollars in private investments required to keep development going.

"The bottom line is, the business world is picking up on this," said Dr. Hertzfeld, a former senior economist at NASA. "They haven't succeeded – yet. Some day they might. And they may not be too far off in the future. But it's not eminent."

People like Mr. Jacobsen, who lives in Los Angeles, are content to wait – for now.

"It's lifelong dream," he said. "I want to wait until it's tested and relatively safe to participate."

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