Show time for commercial spaceflight at hand

The first privately owned passenger spaceship is on track for a test flight beyond the atmosphere this year, and nearly 500 people have signed up for rides.

Another company just closed on $5 million equity financing, enough to finish building a two-seater rocketplane called Lynx.

Both firms — and a half-dozen more — are looking at flying not just people, but experiments and payloads owned by research laboratories, businesses and educational institutes.

“There are fascinating businesses that may come that would be tremendously exciting,” said Carissa Christensen, managing partner of the Tauri Group, which is working on a commercial space market study to be released in May. “There also are tremendous financial challenges, requiring enormous capital, and there are risks,” she said.

So far, only seven people — including one who flew twice — have paid their own way to fly in space. The combination of pre-flight training, round-trip travel on a Russian Soyuz rocket and about 10 days aboard the International Space Station, cost them between $20 million and $35 million each.

Supporters of the nascent commercial spaceflight industry say that is about to change. Besides attracting thrill seekers with deep pockets, they figure the long-term ramifications of routine, reliable, low-cost access to space will spawn a host of new economic opportunities, just as development of the silicon chip did in the 1980s.

“I really believe that this is the engine that’s going to finally break the logjam that has kept us wondering why more interesting things aren’t happening in space,” said Jeff Greason, president and co-founder of XCOR Aerospace, developer of the Lynx rocketplane.

Potential customers for spaceflight go far beyond joy-riders, researchers and educational projects. For example, early efforts to commercialize Russia’s Mir space station caught the eye of reality television show producer Mark Burnett, who wanted to send the winner of a game show blasting off into space. Mir was taken out of service in 2001.

The adult entertainment industry has also expressed interest. Virgin Galactic says it turned down a $1 million proposal for a “sex-in-space” movie.

When the Texas-based Southwest Research Institute shopped for space flights in 2010 to send researchers and experiments on short rides beyond the atmosphere, it considered services offered by five companies.

The independent non-profit organization ended up signing contracts for eight rides aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and six flights on XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx. Both spaceships are under development in Mojave, California.

Rides on the six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo sell for $200,000. Travel on the two-person Lynx — one passenger, one pilot — is priced at $95,000 per flight.

The suborbital flights reach an altitude of at least 62 miles, which provides a few minutes of microgravity and a view of Earth juxtaposed against the black sky of space.

The rides will be similar to the space hops by NASA Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom in May and July 1961 respectively. They also will be similar to ones the privately funded experimental SpaceShipOne vehicle made in 2004.

SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first privately funded manned spaceflights, served as the prototype for a fleet of commercial spaceships for Virgin Galactic, which is owned by British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

SpaceShipTwo is expected to make its first test flight beyond the atmosphere this year. The company has taken almost 500 reservations for flights, which could begin in 2013.


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