- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

LOS ANGELES (AP) — If floating weightless and peering down on a shimmering-blue Earth sounds appealing, you might consider being a space tourist — as long as you’ve got a fat wallet.

Two years after the first privately financed spaceflight jump-started a sleepy industry, more than a dozen companies are developing rocket planes to ferry ordinary rich people out of the atmosphere.

Several private companies will begin building their prototype vehicles this summer with plans to test-fly them as early as next year. If all goes well, the first tourist could hitch a galactic joy ride late next year or 2008, pending approval by federal regulators.

Unlike the Cold War space race between the United States and Soviet Union that sent satellites into orbit and astronauts to the moon, this competition is bankrolled by entrepreneurs, whose competition one day could make a blast affordable.

“This time, it’s personal. This space race is about getting ‘us’ into space,” said space historian Andrew Chaikin.

For now, commercial space travel remains an exclusive club.

Over the past few years, three tourists have paid a reported $20 million each to ride aboard a Russian rocket to the orbiting International Space Station.

The three spent about a week weightless and described the experience as “paradise” and “wondrous.” The most thrilling part for millionaire U.S. scientist Gregory Olsen, who blasted off last year, was viewing the swirling Earth from the dark of space.

Prospective prices for the next round of personal spaceflights aren’t so astronomical. A seat aboard one of the yet-to-be-built commercial spaceships will fetch between $100,000 to $250,000. Space entrepreneurs expect the price tag to drop once the market matures.

Tourists will get what they pay for.

Instead of days in space, the commercial spaceships under development will reach only suborbital space, a region about 60 miles up. Because the private spaceships lack the speed to go into orbit around Earth, the flights are essentially up and down experiences, lasting about two hours with up to five minutes of weightlessness.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta last month told a gathering of space entrepreneurs that the government would move swiftly to grant space travel licenses to companies that can prove they can operate safely.

That is good news for people such as Mr. Chaikin.

“I’ve been hoping and dreaming all my life to go into space. Now I actually have a shot of doing it.”

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