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Final frontier: Space tourism

MOJAVE, Calif. -- The organizers of the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, which will be awarded officially next month, earnestly believe that the recent back-to-back prize-winning flights of SpaceShip-One were the harbinger of a whole new era of space flight, the spark that will ignite a revolution in transportation.

While tourism is expected to be the initial driver of the commercialization of space, some analysts think reducing the costs could open up new possibilities, from rapid transport -- anywhere on Earth in a few hours -- to a whole range of scientific research that is now too costly to attempt.

But it's far from a simple path from this summer's suborbital hops to full-scale orbits of the Earth, as X-Prize founder and chairman Peter Diamandis readily acknowledged. While the US space program in 1961 progressed from Alan Shepard's suborbital flight to John Glenn's multiple orbits of the Earth in just 2 months and using the same design, the similar progression in the private-enterprise space race will take a few years at best, and a substantially new vehicle.

The difference between the two kinds of voyages into space is huge, and the challenges are, well, sky-high.

But the rewards could be commensurate, and then some. And for many of the renegade rocket scientists pursuing the dream, the satisfaction is not so much about launching a new industry as it is achieving something on the cheap, virtually in the family garage, that has eluded the world's heavily financed space agencies for decades.

As space tourism advocate and consultant Patrick Collins put it, space agencies have spent $1 trillion since the first human space flight in 1961, by the Russian Yuri Gagarin -- ''but his rocket, developed 50 years ago, is still the cheapest way to get to space."

In fact, with the shuttle still grounded, a direct descendant of the SL-3 rocket that flew Gagarin is at present the world's one and only viable way of getting humans into space -- not counting the new Chinese Soyuz-knockoff, which has flown once, and of SpaceShipOne, which was developed for a total cost of about $20 million, roughly what NASA spends every day before lunchtime -- literally.But SpaceShipOne's suborbital hop only required a top speed of Mach 3.2, or 2,600 miles per hour, 3.2 times the speed of sound. To reach orbit, a new rocket will need to go about seven times as fast. That means much greater aerodynamic stresses during the launch and entry, and much greater heating during the reentry, among other problems.

The road from here to fully reusable orbital rockets, though, can be accomplished entirely in the tried-and-true aviation tradition of build a little, test a little, learning new lessons along the way and applying them to the next test vehicle.

Every step of the way is also a potential business in its own right. Even the brief suborbital flights of SpaceShipOne itself will be the model for the first space vehicles ever to be constructed specifically for purposes of tourism. Within three years, SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan has promised to design, build, test and deliver five vehicles that will be essentially the stretch-limo version of SpaceShipOne: Instead of two passengers behind the pilot, the new craft will follow essentially the same design but with an elongated fuselage to provide room for five paying customers.

British recording and airline tycoon Richard Branson has ordered the planes, which he plans to operate as Virgin Galactic out of the new Mojave Spaceport, officially licensed by the FAA this year as the nation's first private spaceport. Seats will cost about $190,000, and will provide a slightly longer glimpse of space and weightlessness than the three minutes of SpaceShipOne's flights -- perhaps five minutes or so, though Rutan declined to specify details of such a future vehicle.

The price might sound steep, but consider this: The only people who have been able to buy tickets to space so far have each paid about $20 million, for a weeklong stay at the International Space Station (or, in the case of a Japanese journalist, on the old Soviet space station, Mir).

If the new spaceline could achieve a rate of three flights a day -- each of the five craft could conceivably fly that often -- that would generate about $1 billion a year in revenue, and would be a several-thousandfold increase in the number of paying passengers reaching space each year.

And Rutan's company isn't the only competitor in what could be a new business boom.

''There are seven different companies here at the airport that are involved in this business," said Rich Pournelle of XCor Aerospace, one of the others. XCor has a design for an orbital tourist spaceliner, and the company, which has been struggling along on Defense Department contracts and rocket motor development for other companies, is still searching for the kind of financial ''angel" Rutan found in Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who singlehandedly paid for SpaceShipOne's development.

Lots of people are hoping that those angels will start appearing now that Rutan's craft has proved that the basic idea of low-cost space vehicles isn't crazy. And at least some of the 26 competitors who had registered for the X-Prize are going ahead with planned flights, and with plans for commercial vehicles as well.

All of this growing interest and activity could still be thwarted, though.

Last week, a bill that had been painstakingly negotiated in Congress for more than a year was suddenly about to be amended at the last minute. Instead of helping to enable the new space tourism business, as intended, a new provision would have required safety standards comparable to a mature industry like the airlines. The bill is still in backroom negotiations and might be salvaged in the lame-duck congressional session.

It would certainly be ironic, said Boston-based aerospace engineer and consultant Charles Lurio, that if, as enthusiasts gather next month to celebrate the human and engineering triumph in Mojave, the industry it might have spawned was being strangled in the halls of Washington.

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