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Countdown to Space Tourism

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Long the stuff of science fiction, civilian space travel is now becoming a reality, and Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, is leading the way. Branson hopes to get the public aboard SpaceShipTwo—a six-passenger hybrid rocket–powered plane—in the next two years, but the precise date remains, well, up in the air, as previous forecasts for the launch have proved overly optimistic and development was slowed by an unexplained propellant explosion last July. This summer the company is planning to conduct test flights before the craft takes on civilians, and three days of passenger training will also precede each trip.

Once it goes into operation, SpaceShipTwo will blast people 68 miles above the earth, where they will experience four and a half minutes of weightlessness and enjoy stupendous views through the craft’s 18-inch portholes. The two-and-a-half-hour trip will cost $200,000 a person, but “within ten years we’ll get it down to $60,000, $50,000, even $40,000,” Branson says. More than 200 reservations have been made already—one of them paid for with Virgin frequent-flier miles.

Close on Branson’s heels is EADS Astrium, the European firm that produces the Ariane 5 rockets that deliver supplies to the International Space Station. The company is aiming to have a four-passenger space plane ready by 2014. With a flight plan similar to SpaceShipTwo’s, it will have the look of a business jet and interiors by designer Marc Newson. Seats will go for $233,000 to $315,000 apiece. California rocket-engine producer XCOR Aerospace, meanwhile, plans to launch test flights of its two-seater, Lynx, in 2010. The plane will eventually depart several times a day and reports suggest it will offer 30-minute flights at $100,000 a seat. That’s a whopping $3,333 per minute. Bon voyage!

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