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Space tourism is still many years off

When a privately built rocket plane soared into space earlier this month, astronaut wannabes were giddy with the hope that they'd finally make it off the planet.

They'll have to wait. Despite the recent successful flights of the private craft known as SpaceShipOne, significant hurdles remain before an ordinary person can buy a ticket to leave Earth.

Building a space tour bus, for example, will be tough. And coping with government regulations might be worse. Such work will take time, and many space experts think it's wildly optimistic to talk about flights in three years — which is when the world's first space tourism company wants to begin ferrying passengers.

"Double it, triple it, and you're looking at a realistic time frame when you might go up," says Marco Caceres of Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consulting firm.

For starters, there's still no vehicle that a tourist — even a rich one — could ride into space. The world's only private spacecraft is SpaceShipOne. It seats just three people, and its designer, Burt Rutan, has already said it won't be used for commercial flights.

This month, SpaceShipOne won a $10 million reward called the Ansari X Prize by carrying a man into space twice within two weeks. The X Prize was offered by a non-profit group to foster the development of a private space industry.

The prize has already accomplished its mission. Rutan plans to build five spacecraft for a new company founded by entrepreneur Richard Branson to offer trips into space. The new ships, to be based on SpaceShipOne, are supposed to ferry customers as early as 2007.

Rutan's next vehicle, like his first, will be suborbital: It will dip into space for a few minutes rather than orbit the Earth. But just because Rutan has built one suborbital vehicle doesn't mean it will be easy to build another, experts say.

"It's still a considerable technical challenge," says Dan Rasky of NASA's Ames Research Center.

It took Rutan a year longer than he expected to build SpaceShipOne. And his "spaceliners" will have to carry three more people than the original ship.

Making the task more difficult, Rutan has vowed to make the new ships 100 times safer than any vehicle that has ever flown in space. That could be difficult, given the prototype's history. On SpaceShipOne's first spaceflight June 21, a control system failed. During a flight Sept. 29, it rolled rapidly 29 times as it shot toward space.

Rutan himself acknowledges that he faces a monumental task.

"We have a big challenge in front of us," he said recently, referring to the deadline for building Branson's spaceships. "We're going to be working very, very hard."

There's also the chance that red tape could delay tourist launches.

This month, language added in the Senate to a space-tourism bill said the industry "should be held to the highest standard of safety when transporting humans."

Such wording could impose safety and licensing requirements similar to those faced by airlines. Space-tourism entrepreneurs say that could strangle their companies. But lawmakers have backed down and are trying to compromise.

And there are questions about whether Branson will stay the course, especially if spacecraft development turns out to be trickier than expected. The founder of Virgin Airways and numerous other businesses, Branson is known for his promotional skills. But not every venture has been a success. The Belgium-based discount airline Branson started did poorly. He said a year ago that his new low-fare airline in the USA would start flying by mid-2004, but the airline is still in the planning stages.

But if Branson or another mogul can overcome the technological and regulatory problems, there's money to be made.

More than 7,500 people have asked for more information about Branson's spaceflights. And more than 100 people have put down 10 percent of a $100,000 payment with Space Adventures, a company that connects would-be astronauts with companies building spaceships.

The real question, space experts say, is whether a company can make a profit on space tourism.

There's a "pretty good market," says Philip McAlister of the Futron aerospace research firm. "The question is, can someone service that demand at a price ... that will let them make money? That has yet to be determined."

Branson seems confident. He has pledged to use the profits from his space-tourism outfit to do research so that people who don't have a fortune can fly into space.


Years in the making

Engineers hope in the next three years to build the first privately developed spaceship to carry paying passengers. Development time for some other space vehicles:

— Mercury, the first U.S. manned vehicle to fly in space: 3 years

— Apollo, which took astronauts to the moon: 7 years

— Space shuttle: 9 years

— SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed manned spaceship: 5 years


Sources: Scaled Composites; NASA; Columbia Accident Investigation Board