Boeing buys a ticket for the new space race

By David Usborne

"Please ensure your spine is in the stiffened position and your fears of hurtling towards the stars are stowed for take-off. Any passengers not planning to visit the Space Station today should disembark now."

These are niceties you probably will not hear should you become one of the lucky terrestrials to land a spot in the new Boeing "space taxi" that could be blasting off from Cape Canaveral in Florida as soon as in 2015.

It will be cosy in there - you, perhaps another couple of casual tourists and, hopefully, three or four professional astronauts.

Catching a cab to the constellations may sound like science fiction, but not according to Boeing. The aviation giant has entered a joint venture with Space Adventures to catapult Joe Public to the stars.

Based in Virginia, Space Adventure is the outfit that has arranged already for a very few - and very rich - individuals to visit the International Space Station (ISS) by way of Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. Seven souls have taken that trip.

The Boeing announcement offers a new glimpse into a future where space routes will be commercially exploited and travellers running out of places to see on Earth will suddenly have new, rather inky horizons stretching beyond the planet.

Vanishing are the days when space travel is exclusively government-run and funded and blast-off is something you only watch on television. Globe-trotting will no longer do. Prepare to space-trot.

The plan - though it hinges almost entirely on the outcome of squabbles in Washington about the future of Nasa - is for Boeing to build capsules much like the familiar Apollo ones; blunt cones, just 15 feet across, and then send them up to the space station carrying astronauts from Nasa and tourists.

Space Adventures will do the marketing, persuading you and me that a week in space might make for a different sort of holiday.

The space-excursion industry already has other players, most notably the British aviation tycoon Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, which expects to begin test flights beyond the Earth's atmosphere, all being well, next year.

The company said it welcomes Boeing joining the fray because the two will not be in direct competition.

Customers of the Virgin Galactic, which has its base in the Mojave Desert close to Los Angeles, will be paying far less for a much less involved expedition. They will essentially go up into space for three hours or so and then come back down again, all for around $200,000.

If it is anything like the rides already offered on the Soyuz, those riding on the Boeing capsule will pay as much as $40m for a round-trip ticket. They will circumnavigate Earth as they rendezvous with the ISS and they will remain in space, presumably, for days at a time.

"This is not a competing product in any shape, sense or form," said Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic, arguing that what Boeing has in mind will "be more like putting lots of Darwins on the Beagle than space tourism".

That US government policy on space exploration is in flux means opportunity and peril for the new Boeing project.

The Obama White House is pushing for a new direction for Nasa, under which it would give up trying to develop new spacecraft of its own to ferry astronauts to the ISS - the current shuttle fleet has only about two more missions left before it is retired - and turn instead to commercial companies to develop them. It is into this breach that Boeing hopes to tread. Taking tourists as well as astronauts is a way towards greater viability.

Congress, however, is less convinced about Nasa sub-contracting for spacecraft and would like to see the agency do as it has done before - launch astronauts into space on its own vehicles.

But for now, Boeing and Space Adventures are betting that the White House view will prevail, if only because the dollars may not be there for Nasa to continue as before.

Boeing was one of seven companies chosen by Nasa earlier this year to begin looking into the commercial development of a "commercial crew" system to provide "low-cost" transportation to the ISS.

Boeing is also partnering another firm that expects to build other space labs. These would essentially become orbiting hotels, giving space travellers, of the more distant future, choices of destination beyond the ISS.

Eric Anderson, the chairman and founder of Space Adventures, said his company was already in contact with prospective passengers for the space taxi.

He also hinted that while he cannot put a price on a ticket yet, it should be cheaper than those already sold for travel with the Russians.

"With our customer experience and Boeing's heritage in human spaceflight, our goal is not only to benefit the individuals who fly to space," he said.

"[It's] also to help make the resources of space available to the commercial sector by bringing the value from space back to Earth."

The agreement with Space Adventure "creates another opportunity to jump-start the human migration to space," added Brewster Shaw, Boeing's vice president and general manager of space exploration.

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