As Virgin boss unveils his commercial space 'plane', SpaceShipTwo, to the world, we look at the other companies that are working hard to get a piece of the space tourism pie.
While Virgin Galactic may be the first company to officially enter the market, the Russian Space Agency has been offering flights into space for a number years. For a mere USD$20-35 million, the rich and powerful have been able to buy a seat aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).
Organised by Space Adventures, who are currently the the only space tourism company providing human space mission in the world marketplace, the likes of American businessman Dennis Tito, South African business man Mark Shuttleworth and five other privileged individuals have had the opportunity to go into space.
Whilst Branson's tickets will be cheaper, $200,000 per seat, it shows the large amount of money that can be made in space tourism. As a number of companies have sprung up in recent years, hoping to create a space tourism industry, but can they compete with Virgin Galactic?
Company: Blue Origin
Space vehicle: New Shepard
Potential for success: Set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is a privately funded aerospace company. Their prototype of the New Shepard has been undergoing test flights since 2006, how the construction of a second test vehicle was in progress and that a third development vehicle would be built after that before any commercial flights would begin.
They will enter the market behind Virgin Galactic, with their current timetables stating that unmanned flights will commence in 2011, whilst manned ones will start a year later.
Company: EADS Astrium
Space vehicle: Unnamed sub-orbital hybrid
Potential for success: Part of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), EADS Astrium announced that it would be entering the space tourism sector in 2007. Using a one-stage sub-orbital hybrid craft, utilising both jet and rocket engines, their 'space jet' would be able to take up to four passengers from regular airports using conventional jet engines, using rockets to get to a altitude of 100km.
Tickets were expected to cost just less than USD$300,000 with flights beginning in 2012, however in January 2009, the company announced the program had been put on hold indefinitely.
Company: Excalibur Almaz
Space vehicle: TKS
Potential for success: Using modernized TKS space capsules and Almaz space stations, Excalibur Almaz is adapting technology from the former secret Soviet space program to enter the space tourism market. The TKS space capsules are capable of carrying three passengers and have the benefit of being reusable for up to 100 times.
The company hopes to begin flights by 2012 or 2013. In a cramped capsule, this could be the perfect mission for those craving the feel of the Space Race in the 1960s, rather than the comfort of a Virgin Galactic flight. However, unlike Virgin's flights that last two hours, Excalibur Almaz's flights last up to a week.
Space vehicle: Dream Chaser
Potential for success: Based in California, SpaceDev is a space flight and micro-satellite company that is now aiming to "make routine commercial spaceflight possible and to help open space for all of humanity."
In 2005, the company announced the Dream Chaser project - a four passenger sub-orbital and a six passenger orbital vehicle - based on NASA's HL-20 "Personnel Launch System" or "Space Taxi".
In 2007, the company said it had finalized a Memorandum of Understanding with United Launch Alliance on exploring the potential of launching the Dream Chaser using a Atlas V 431 configuration. Destinations could include the ISS and other commercial orbital destinations as well as for commercial orbital space tourism flights. The Benson Space Company had shown interest in purchasing three of the craft, but have since cancelled their order placing the Dream Chaser in limbo.
Company: XCOR Aerospace
Space vehicle: The Lynx
Potential for success: Based in Mojave, California XCOR Aerospace have been working on a number of 'rocket planes' for a several years. Their latest design, the Lynx, is designed to be a reusable craft, capable of several flights a day. Designed to hold a pilot and one passenger, the Lynx can reach altitudes of 60km at a cost of $95,000.
The Lynx is planning to roll out its first flights in 2010 from the Mojave Air and Spaceport, and could be a potential rival to Virgin Galactic. XCOR's next plane, the Mark 2, is expected to have a maximum height of 110km
So, while Virgin Galactic may get up to space first, it won't be up there for long especially with the likes of the European Space Agency also looking to space tourism. Recognising the potential, the ESA have begun looking into designing a reusable orbital transport, such as the LAPCAT or other space-liners.
At his press conference yesterday, Branson said that "only 450 people have ever been into space; that's including all the Russians, all the Chinese and all the Americans put together." That number looks set to change very shortly.
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