They haven’t yet flown a spaceship, and they haven’t yet revealed the sources of their funding, but top executives at Aera Corp. say they’ll be selling tickets for suborbital rocket trips at an estimated base price of $150,000, beginning Thursday.
In an exclusive interview with MSNBC.com, Aera founder Bill Sprague said Wednesday that the company was on course to start flight tests from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in August 2006, conduct the first commercial tourist flight during the following December and go into regular service in 2007.
"All of our planning is still on target, so we're feeling very comfortable about that date," said Sprague, the company's chairman, chief executive officer and chief scientist.
Reservations are being taken via a new Web site, AeraSpaceTours.com. Tickets for the first flight are priced at $250,000, payable up front. Reservations for subsequent flights are being offered on a first-come, first-served basis with payment of a 25 percent deposit. Sprague estimated the price tag at $150,000, although the fine print on the Web site says the final cost may vary.
Sprague said Aera's tour package would include a week of spaceflight training in the Orlando area and Cape Canaveral, climaxing with a flight aboard the company's computer-controlled Altairis rocket to a height of more than 80 miles (128 kilometers). At that altitude, passengers would feel a few minutes of weightlessness and glimpse the curvature of the earth below the blackness of space. A parachute system would make for a soft landing at the end of the trip.
"It'll be five-star training across the board," Sprague said.
Other ticket booths
California-based Aera isn't the first company to sell suborbital space trips in advance of their actual availability: Virginia-based Space Adventures has already put more than $2 million in deposits into a trust fund, for future flights on space vehicles yet to be determined. Virgin Galactic, backed by British tycoon Richard Branson, says it has signed up more than 100 people for rides on the successors to the SpaceShipOne rocket plane.
In fact, a Texas group called the Civilian Astronaut Corps solicited deposits back in the late 1990s for suborbital trips that were due to begin in 1999. The effort never got off the ground, however, and the deposits had to be returned.
That might serve as a cautionary tale for would-be early adopters in the infant space tourism industry. lf Aera holds to its plans, it would be the first-ever private company to host paying space passengers. But if the schedule slips, Aera could end up as a latecomer in the commercial space race.
For now, Virgin Galactic has the most solid pedigree, by virtue of its deep pockets as well as SpaceShipOne's success under the guidance of aerospace designer Burt Rutan. But even that venture has had some growing pains , and commercial flights aren't expected to begin until late 2007 at the earliest, with a $200,000 price tag.
At least half a dozen other companies are planning to go after the same market: Next week, for example, Canadian Arrow is due to unveil the details of a space tourism partnership with physician-entrepreneur-politician Chirinjeev Kathuria, a millionaire who helped fund Russia's Mir space station in its latter days.
Getting there first
To get to that market first, Aera's Sprague said he would draw upon his team's long experience in aerospace, a keep-it-simple approach to rocket technology and millions of dollars in private backing.
Sprague said it was "a bit easier than I thought it would be" to attract venture capital for the effort.
"The amount of funding that was necessary to bring this project to fruition is less than what Burt Rutan needed for SpaceShipOne — less than $20 million," he said. Sprague declined to name any of the investors, even though he acknowledged that revealing the names would help reassure would-be fliers.
What Aera still has to do
On the logistical front, Aera has reached a preliminary agreement with the U.S. Air Force's 45th Space Wing for launches from Cape Canaveral. But it hasn't yet struck a follow-up deal for use of the Florida Space Authority's launch facility there — and although Sprague said Aera has had discussions with the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, the company was still a long way from getting FAA clearance.
"Because we're using a federal launch range, the FAA is very tightly integrated with the 45th Space Wing, so we see that as one activity rather than two separate ones," he said.
Sprague said Aera was on the verge of making a deal for a rocket manufacturing facility in Florida, but was not yet ready to announce details.
Once all those arrangements are in place, Sprague's timetable calls for the Altairis propulson system, powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene, to undergo firing tests starting in the first half of 2006. "We're using such plain-vanilla technology that very little detailed testing is required," Sprague said.
Flown by computer
Three unmanned test flights would be conducted in the latter half of 2006, leading up to the manned flights.
The Altairis is designed to be flown automatically, with double-redundancy and triple-redundancy built into the computerized control systems, Sprague said. Each flight would carry six passengers, plus a mission commander who would guide the riders through the trip and deal with any emergencies.
It may sound a bit daunting to blast off on a rocket with a computer in charge, but Sprague said Aera planned to implement stringent safety requirements. "I suspect that our requirements internally are somewhat more severe than what the FAA would require," Sprague said.
Raising the company's profile
Aera's plan calls for 30 tourist launches during 2007. But can the company really deliver on that plan? Other players in the suborbital spaceflight industry indicated that Aera still had to raise its profile in the marketplace.
"I haven't talked to them in well over a year," said Gregg Maryniak, executive director of the St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation, which awarded a $10 million prize to the SpaceShipOne team for last year's historic private-sector spaceflights. "It's no slam on them at all, I just haven't heard from them."
Meanwhile, Stacey Tearne, a spokeswoman for Space Adventures, said her company has been engaged in talks with at least a half-dozen suborbital spaceship developers, but has had "no interaction" with Aera.
Sprague isn't fazed by the crowded marketplace. In fact, he expects aerospace giants such as the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin to join the fray eventually. So why haven't they done so already?
Sprague, who has had 30 years of experience working at Boeing, Lockheed Martin and other well-established firms, said that "society needed to mature a bit" to make space tourism a reality.
"If someone had tried to do this 20 years ago, it would never have been possible from a social standpoint," he said. "It's still a bold idea, so it's met with skepticism."
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