Image: Richard Branson and SpaceShipTwo
ROBYN BECK  /  AFP - Getty Images
Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder, and members of his family plan to be among the first passengers to experience a suborbital flight aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, background.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/24/2011 6:41:43 PM ET 2011-02-24T23:41:43

As a self-described “adventure junkie,” Yanik Silver of Potomac, Md., has raced cars in Baja, run with the bulls in Pamplona and swum with great white sharks off the coast of South Africa.

Still to accomplish? A trip into suborbital space, a goal the founder of Maverick Business Adventures hopes to achieve as space tourist No. 144 on the Virgin Galactic passenger list when the company begins commercial service in the next 18 months to two years.

The experience won’t be cheap — Silver has already put down a $175,000 deposit on the $200,000 trip — but he’s convinced it will be worth it. “It’ll be an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he told msnbc.com.

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Seats for 'thrillionaires'
As fans of space travel are well aware, NASA’s space shuttle program is on a glide path toward retirement. On Thursday, Discovery blasted off on its final trip to the International Space Station, to be followed by the final flights for Endeavour (April) and Atlantis (June).

In their stead, a handful of entrepreneurs are hoping to offer commercial space travel for the general public — or at least its most deep-pocketed members. Last month, Space Adventures, which has already taken seven “space tourists” to the space station, announced it would offer three similar trips on Russian Soyuz spacecraft starting in 2013. Factoring inflation, exchange rates and mission profile, the estimated tab for a seat on the 10- to 12-day trip is “probably close to $50 million,” said company President Tom Shelley.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Virgin Galactic is moving forward with its plans to offer suborbital flights to about 68 miles above the Earth. The flights, which will have space for six passengers, will provide 1,000-mile views and four to five minutes of zero gravity.

At this point, the company won’t commit to a launch date for commercial service, but executives suggest the first experimental flights could take place within the next year. Safety and regulatory issues, they say, will determine the first commercial launch, with Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder, and members of his family filling the first seats.

Assuming all goes well, the other 400-plus people who have put down deposits with Virgin Galactic are expected to earn their space-tourist wings during the year after that. Add another 200 or so who have signed up for planned suborbital flights with Space Adventures — $110,000 to $120,000, depending on payment plan, in a two-person vehicle — and it would seem that space tourism is poised to take off.

Space: the final frontier
So who are these people who have both the will and the wherewithal? “They’re people who want to be part of something because they believe that space is in the future of mankind,” said Shelley. “The rich adventurer who’s run out of places to go does account for some of the interest, but for others, it’s their life savings.”

As chief executive officer of Virtuoso Ltd., the upscale travel network that serves as the exclusive retail agent for Virgin Galactic in the Americas, Matthew Upchurch parses the market slightly differently: “Some are people who have a passion for aviation and have always dreamed of being an astronaut. For others, the essence of great travel experiences is all about getting themselves out of their comfort zone and seeing things from another perspective.”

To serve that diverse clientele, Virtuoso created a network of Accredited Space Agents, or ASAs. To qualify, would-be ASAs had to apply, describe their expertise and clientele and attend a three-day training session at Cape Canaveral or the National AeroSpace Training and Research Center (NASTAR), outside Philadelphia. Currently, there are 72 Virtuoso ASAs and 125 worldwide.

The challenge, says Upchurch, is that there is simply no precedent for selling space travel. “It’s not just basic dates, rates and available space,” he said. “A big part of it is helping people understand what’s going to happen and maintaining engagement with them regarding the milestones of the program.”

And answering their questions. “People are curious about waivers, life insurance and the risks involved,” said Shelley. “We want them to come into it with their eyes wide open.” To ease the process, reservations with both Space Adventures and Virgin Galactic are refundable. “If people change their minds, they don’t incur a big penalty,” Shelley said.

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From Kitty Hawk to commercial service
While it’s easy to dismiss space tourism as the private domain of “thrillionaires,” those involved — both providers and participants — insist there’s more to it than that. “The people who are stepping up and supporting this young industry will allow a large percentage of the population to access space in the future,” said Shelley. “We’re going to be talking about thousands and thousands of people.”

“It’s like the Wright brothers,” said Vicki Upchurch, a Colorado-based ASA (and Matthew Upchurch’s sister-in-law). “Little did they know when they flew at Kitty Hawk that before long people would pay to get on an airplane. We’re in the same position now with space travel.”

If that sounds appealing, rest assured that both Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures are still taking reservations. With the former, paying in full in advance will get you an earlier spot (roughly between number 400 and 500); with the latter, an 8 percent discount off the installment plan. If that’s too steep right now, both are accepting deposits of $20,000.

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Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .

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Video: Richard Branson on the Virgin Spaceship

Explainer: Ten high-profile players in the commercial space race

  • Image: Obama at KSC
    Jewel Samad  /  AFP — Getty Images file
    US President Barack Obama walks past a main engine of a shuttle as he arrives to speak on the new course the administration is charting for NASA and the future of US leadership in human space flight at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 15, 2010.

    When NASA's space shuttle fleet retires in 2011, the space agency will have to rely on Russian spacecraft and the private sector to taxi cargo and humans to and from the International Space Station, even as it turns its focus to the technologies required to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

    President Barack Obama views the policy as a boost to the nascent commercial spaceflight industry, where competition is already heating up to supply the taxi services. Some companies are also talking about offering out-of-this-world rides for researchers as well as tourists with deep pockets and a serious case of star lust. Click ahead to check out 10 of the top players in the race to commercialize space.

  • Space Exploration Technologies

    Image: Falcon 9 launch
    CollectSpace.com
    SpaceX's Falcon 9 rises from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Friday, sending a test capsule into orbit.

    PayPal co-founder Elon Musk has already signed up NASA as a marquee account for his high-flying venture, Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX. The government has a $1.6 billion contract with the Hawthorne, Calif., company to provide unmanned cargo deliveries to the International Space Station starting in 2011 with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule.

    This image shows the successful test launch of the Falcon 9 rocket on June 4. The rocket will eventually carry the Dragon to orbit. If all goes according to plan, astronauts may get a lift as well, starting in 2013. SpaceX has also secured contracts to launch next-generation satellites for the telecommunications company Iridium.

  • Orbital Sciences

    Image: Orbital Sciences
    Orbital Sciences

    Another NASA contract — this one worth a reported $1.9 billion — is in the bag at Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, which is planning to supply the International Space Station with its unmanned Cygnus spacecraft, shown here in an artist’s rendering. A newly-developed Taurus 2 rocket will ferry the cargo ship to space. If the opportunity presents itself, the company may advance plans to ferry humans to orbit as well.

  • Boeing

    Image: Space capsule
    Boeing
    Boeing is hard at work on the research and development of a new space capsule aimed at flying people to the International Space Station.

    Boeing, the aerospace giant, has unveiled plans to flesh out designs and build a new capsule-based spaceship called the CST-100, which will take cargo and passengers to the International Space Station. The development push comes thanks to an $18 million NASA grant.

    The Apollo-like capsule will carry a crew of seven and be designed to launch on a variety of rockets, including the Atlas and Delta rockets operated by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture known as the United Launch Alliance, as well as SpaceX's Falcon. Extra seats may be made available for paying passengers through a marketing arrangement with Space Adventures.

  • Masten Space Systems

    X Prize Foundation via AP
    This photo shows the Masten Space System rocket XA-0.1B, also called "Xombie" launching from the pad, traveling 50 meters above the ground at the Mojave Air & Space Port. Mojave, CA on Oct. 7, 2009.

    While big NASA contracts have already gone to big names in the commercial space industry, lesser-known Masten Space Systems is in the race to pick up taxi fares to the International Space Station as well.

    The company won a $1 million lunar challenge prize with the Xoie spacecraft shown here. It is now working on a next-generation vehicle based on the vertical-takeoff-and-landing design to ferry cargo. NASA funding will go toward four test flights of the spacecraft, called Xaero.

  • Sierra Nevada Corporation

    Image: Sierra Nevada Corporation
    Lewis Geyer  /  Times-call

    The reusable Dream Chaser space plane, under development by Sierra Nevada Corp. subsidiary SpaceDev , has a look and feel reminiscent of a mini-space shuttle. Like NASA spacecraft, a rocket lifts the space plane up — and at the end of its mission, the plane lands on a runway.

    In fact, the transportation system is based on NASA technology, and the company recently received $20 million from the space agency to continue the plane's development. A full-scale mockup of the plane is shown in this file photo from its unveiling in 2006.

  • Bigelow Aerospace

    Image: Bigelow Aerospace
    Bigelow Aerospace

    Entrepreneur Robert Bigelow padded his bank account by building a hotel chain, Budget Suites of America. His latest pioneering venture, Bigelow Aerospace, is aimed at building affordable habitats in space.

    Two prototype inflatable capsules have already been launched, and plans are in the works to put the more expansive Sundancer space station, shown here in an artist's conception, in orbit by 2015.

    In this case, the overnight guests may include national space agencies as well as private-sector researchers and thrill-seeking tourists. Other players in the commercial space sector would taxi guests to and from the puffy digs.

  • Blue Origin

    Image: Blue Origin
    Blue Origin

    Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who amassed a fortune selling the printed word online, has few words to share about Blue Origin, his commercial space venture to fly a vertical launch and landing rocket to suborbital space.

    This much is known: A demonstration vehicle called Goddard, shown here in a file photo, successfully took off and landed in 2006 from the company's private spaceport in west Texas. It's not yet known when the company's commercial vehicle will be ready for a public unveiling.

    A bit more info: NASA recently awarded the company $3.7 million of a $50 million pie that it says is for the "development of system concepts, key technologies, and capabilities that could ultimately be used in commercial crew human space transportation systems." Blue Origin is concentrating on the development of a launch escape system that could push a NASA capsule to safety in case of emergency.

  • Virgin Galactic

    Virgin Galactic
    The Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceliner SpaceShipTwo makes its first crewed flight on July 15, 2010 over the Mojave Desert in California.

    Space enthusiasts with $200,000 to burn can book a ticket to ride to outer space with Virgin Galactic on the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. The plane, meant for tourism as well as research, will haul six passengers and two pilots on suborbital flights that pop into outer space for a few minutes before returning to Earth.

    The aircraft was designed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and colleagues at Scaled Composites. Test flights of the spacecraft, which launches from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, are under way. Ticketholders will get their opportunity to ride once all systems are a go.

  • Armadillo Aerospace

    Image: Armadillo future spacecraft
    Armadillo Aerospace

    Would-be space tourists who balk at the price tag for a ride on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo might consider another option in the offing: $102,000 for a seat on Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace's vertical takeoff and landing vehicle.

    The spacecraft, shown in this artist's conception, will rocket passengers into outer space for about five minutes of weightlessness and 360-degree views. Tickets can be booked through Space Adventures, the same company that has arranged rides to the International Space Station for the super-wealthy.

  • XCOR Aerospace

    Image: XCOR Aerospace
    XCOR Aerospace

    Yet another option for the space tourist is a $95,000 trip up to the inky blackness at the edge of space in XCOR's Lynx rocketship. The spacecraft, which has room for just one pilot and one passenger riding shotgun, takes off horizontally from a runway and climbs steeply to 200,000 feet, where views abound of planet Earth and the stars. Advance reservations for the hour-long trip can be booked through space tourism company RocketShipTours. An artist's rendering of the rocketship is seen here.

Photos: The making of SpaceShipTwo

loading photos...
  1. Birds of a feather...

    SpaceShipTwo in full feather wing mode on a rapid descent from its drop altitude of 51,500 feet over Mojave,Calif., on Wednesday May 4, 2011. The feathered wing is at its full 65 degree angle and remained at this angle for 1 minute and 15 seconds. The craft descended in this configuration at a near vertical angle at a rate of 15,500 feet per minute. The craft was reconfigured to normal glide mode at 33,500 feet. All objectives of the flight were met. The flight duration of SpaceShipTwo following release was approximatel 11 minutes and 5 seconds. This photograph was taken with high powered telescopes from the ground. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Golden Gate ... to space?

    A new Virgin America A320 jet, aptly named "My Other Ride Is a Spaceship," flies in tandem with the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its mothership over the Golden Gate Bridge on April 6. The aircraft landed at San Francisco International Airport, becoming the first planes to arrive at the new $388 million, 640,000-square-foot Terminal 2. SpaceShipTwo is expected to begin rocket-powered suborbital test flights sometime in the next year - not from San Francisco, but from the Mojave Air and Space Port near Los Angeles. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin America) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ready for testing

    Onlookers inspect the back end of the mated WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo planes at the Mojave Air and Space Port during the rocket plane's Dec. 7 unveiling. The eight-person SpaceShipTwo, which was christened the VSS Enterprise, is the first of a series of space planes due to start commercial service in the 2011-2012 time frame. Tests of the rocket plane were to begin within days of the unveiling. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Spaceship's debut

    Illuminated by colored lights, the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is attached to its WhiteKnightTwo mothership during its rollout on Dec. 7 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. (Anrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Welcome aboard

    Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson prepares for flight inside the mothership Eve's cockpit at the EAA AirVenture air show in Wisconsin on July 27, 2009. The airplane's pilot, Pete Siebold, and Scaled Composites engineer Bob Morgan help with the preparations. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. First step to space

    The WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane known as Eve flies over mountains during a test flight from its home base at California's Mojave Air and Space Port. Eve is to serve as the mothership for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. SpaceShipTwo's test flights are due to begin in 2010. (Robert Scherer) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Riding the wave

    Virgin Group employees sit in the cabin of a prototype Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft at London's Science Museum in February 2007. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to the edge of outer space for a few minutes of weightlessness and an out-of-this-world view. The fare is $200,000 per passenger. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A ride for the boss

    Virgin Galactic's billionaire founder, Richard Branson, flashes a grin as he stands in front on VMS Eve, the WhiteKnightTwo airplane that will eventually carry SpaceShipTwo to its air launch. Branson took his first flight on Eve in July 2009 at the EAA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis. The plane is named after Branson's mother, who inspired the painting on the fuselage. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Window seats

    Windows dot the interior of the SpaceShipTwo passenger cabin, as seen during an early stage of the rocket plane's construction. The design is aimed at making sure each of the six passengers has a view of the curving Earth and the black sky of space from a height of 62 miles (100 kilometers). (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Fire away!

    The full-scale rocket motor to be used in SpaceShipTwo is successfully test-fired on May 6, 2009, at the Northrop Grumman test facility in San Clemente, Calif. The hybrid rocket motor was built by Scaled Composites and SpaceDev. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The making of SpaceShipTwo

    Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is the result of a years-long development effort, following up on the successful suborbital spaceflights of SpaceShipOne in 2004. In this photo, SpaceShipTwo's passenger cabin is being placed on the fuselage inside Scaled Composites' hangar in Mojave, Calif. (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
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