- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 4, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Venture capitalist Alan Walton has trekked to the North Pole, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and skydived over Mount Everest. A hop into space to enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness would have been the ultimate adventure.

After waiting seven years to fly aboard Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline, Walton gave up on the dream and asked for a $200,000 ticket refund on his 75th birthday this past spring.

Walton, who was among the first 100 customers to sign up, is not as spry as he used to be, and he’s concerned about the project delays.

“This was a decision I wish I didn’t have to make,” he said recently. But “it was time.”

Promises of space travel for the masses reached a euphoric pitch in 2004 when the experimental SpaceShipOne air-launched over the Mojave Desert and became the first privately financed, manned spacecraft to dash into space. It won the $10 million Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004, for accomplishing the feat twice in two weeks.

The flights were hailed by space enthusiasts as a leap toward opening the final frontier to civilians.

Virgin Galactic, which licensed the SpaceShipOne technology, began taking reservations before a commercial version was even built. Branson predicted back then that the maiden passenger flight would take off in 2007.

Other private rocketeers hunkered down in their hangars and sketched out designs to compete with Virgin Galactic. Soon a cottage industry rose. While there’s been progress made _ most are in the testing stage _ there’s still no launch date.

“It’s tough,” said Erika Wagner of the X Prize Foundation, which sponsored the 2004 contest. “We’ve seen slower progress than a lot of people would have liked.”

Human spaceflight so far has been restricted to governments and a handful of wealthy thrill-seekers who have plunked down millions of dollars to hitch rides aboard Russian rockets to the International Space Station, which circles the Earth 250 miles high.

Instead of flying all the way to orbit, current space tourism efforts are focused on suborbital trips using vehicles designed to rocket up to the edge of space then immediately descend rather than circle the Earth. Virgin Galactic promises flights to altitudes of at least 62 miles with a few minutes of weightlessness. Cost per head ranges from $100,000 to $200,000 _ far cheaper than the trips to orbit but still pricey.

Besides Virgin Galactic, other players include XCOR Aerospace headed by rocketeer Jeff Greason; Armadillo Aerospace founded by computer game programmer John Carmack; and Blue Origin headed by Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos.

The companies are privately held and do not answer to shareholders. As a result, details about progress are hard to come by. Scaled Composites, which designed SpaceShipOne and is building a passenger version for Virgin Galactic, is publicity-shy, but posts results of test flights on its website.

Blue Origin is the most tight-lipped. The company didn’t disclose a recent accident until a week after it happened. Even now, details about what failed during the test flight are sketchy.

Except for Blue Origin, the space tourism players are separate from those vying to build space taxis to the International Space Station under a NASA contract.

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