Race on to give tourists a trip out of this world

By Justin Huggler

Plans for a spaceport on Singapore that will blast tourist flights into space by 2009 have been announced by a US company which hopes to train amateur astronauts in four days - for $153,000 a head.

The 21st century space race is on between private companies competing to be the first to offer commercial space flights. Yesterday's announcement came three days after the same company, Space Adventures, announced plans to build its first spaceport in the United Arab Emirates.

Space Adventures is pitted against Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which is building a spaceport near Roswell, New Mexico, and has released a list of 100 passengers who have booked space flights, even though its spacecraft have not yet been built.

It was Space Adventures that organised the flights of the first three space tourists, Dennis Tito and Greg Olsen from the US, and Mark Shuttleworth from South Africa, who hitched rides on Russian rockets.

But in recent months Virgin Galactic appears to have stolen a march on Space Adventures, with a site chosen for its space port and passenger lists drawn up. Now Space Adventures has hit back with plans for not one, but two spaceports.

The first three space tourists each paid US$20 million ($28 million) and had to undergo six months of rigorous training. The cash-strapped Russian space programme agreed to take them on board as passengers to raise funds.

But the new spaceflight will be on commercial spacecraft operated directly by Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures, and will be much cheaper, though still beyond the pockets of most tourists.

Both companies say their flights will be considerably safer than getting a ride on board existing spacecraft, and will require just a few days of training.

The reason is that both will be operating a new generation of "sub-orbital" spacecraft which will be able to fly high enough to leave the atmosphere so that passengers can experience weightlessness and look down on Earth from space, but will not go fast enough to reach full orbit.

For added safety, they will not be launched from the ground like existing rockets but will be lifted off the ground by carrier aircraft and launched in mid-air, so that in the event of any rocket failure the spacecraft can glide safely back down to earth.

The two companies are each working with an aerospace partner on separate designs. Each will be small and carry only a handful of passengers. Neither design has gone into production yet but Virgin Galactic says it will begin flights in 2008, while Space Adventures has sold a Chinese businessman, Jiang Fang, a place on a sub-orbital spaceflight next year.

Competition is also intensifying between different countries and cities to host commercial spaceports, which are seen as potential tourist magnets. In both Singapore and the UAE, Space Adventures has received support from local governments keen to attract the commercial space business.

Space Adventures has gone for accessibility, building its spaceports in Singapore and As al-Chamois, near Dubai, close to two of Asia's main hub airports, while Virgin Galactic has gone for the mystique of Roswell, according to urban myth the site of a UFO crash in 1947.

Space race

How the tourist flights compare :

Space Adventures
Cost: $153,000
Spaceports: Singapore, UAE
Start date: 2007

Virgin Galactic
Cost:$300,000
Spaceports: Roswell, New Mexico
Start date: 2008

Both offer "suborbital" flights, giving passengers a feeling of weightlessness and a view of the Earth from space

- INDEPENDENT

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