Space, the final travel frontier -- and now 50 percent cheaper, sort of.
Upstarts RocketShip Tours and XCOR Aerospace say that the price of their flights, slated to begin as soon as 2010, will be $95,000, about half that of the ones being offered by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which also hopes to launch as early as 2010.
"Our goal is to make space travel accessible and affordable to those who aspire to experience the ultimate adventure,’’ said Jules Klar, CEO and chairman of RocketShip in a statement.
It’s time to comparison shop. (Cue "Star Wars'' theme)
First, what do you get for your $95,000 from RocketShip (which has signed up about 22 people so far)? It begins with a five-night stay at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa in Arizona for training, medical screening, and other flight preparation (including some R&R), according to Klar. When your flight date nears, the company will put you up for another three days in Southern California, near the takeoff site in Mojave. You’ll get a preflight refresher course and a final once over.
When the day for your hour-long odyssey arrives, you’ll don a pressurized spacesuit and helmet and climb into a two-seat space vehicle called Lynx (you get to fly shotgun with the pilot), which will take off "with a powerful ascent reaching Mach 2 on its way to 200,000 feet,’’ or nearly 40 miles up, according to the company. That is a much higher than the cruising altitude of nearly 7 miles typically achieved by commercial airliners but a good bit shy of where space begins, generally agreed to be around 62 miles up.
By comparison, if you go with Virgin Galactic, the tab will be $200,000 -- and at that price Virgin says on its website that it has signed up "around 250.'' There will be six passengers and two pilots on each two-and-a-half-hour flight, preceded by three days of preflight training and screening at Spaceport America, a publicly-funded project 45 miles north of Las Cruces that the state of New Mexico hopes will be completed in late 2010. Groups will stay at a hotel that Virgin plans to build nearby, said Graham Whyte of Virtuoso Ltd., sales distributor for Virgin Galactic.
Instead of flying "direct" a mothership, which will launch from Spaceport, will take you to 50,000 feet and your space ship will separate and climb to a maximum altitude of at least 68 miles, according to the company. So unlike the RocketShip flight, you will actually go into space.
There are all kinds of technical differences in terms of the planes, but both companies insist that safety is Job 1 – and both suggest that federal regulation is relatively light, which is not surprising given that this is more of an adventure than a means of public transportation. (In fact, Klar told me the FAA refers to those who would go up as “participants” rather than travelers.)
Perhaps but the biggest difference between the two offerings seems to be that the Virgin folks plan to let passengers leave their seats for a bit to experience weightlessness, said Catherine R. Wygant of Hurley Travel Experts of Portland, an ‘‘accredited space agent’’ for Virgin.
If you fly RocketShip you get to experience significant G forces, wear cool gear, and get a great view of the geography of parts of the big blue marble, but you’re pretty much strapped in for the flight. No floating around the cabin.
But, hey, what do you expect for $95,000?
Photo illustration of Lynx courtesy of XCOR Aerospace