Paying space travelers could be lifting off from the United States by 2008, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta says.
He told a group of space entrepreneurs Thursday that he expects to issue permits for test flights next year. If those are successful, licenses for passenger space travel could then be issued.
“This timeline isn’t based on science fiction,” Mineta said. "It is a timeline based on the reality of where commercial space is today and where we expect the state of commercial space to be within two short years."
Mineta said a number of companies should be ready to provide suborbital space trips by that time, and the Transportation Department should be able to issue launch permits on that timetable as well.
Some companies, such as Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Ltd. and California-based Sprague Astronautics, have said they could be ready to start commercial suborbital operations as early as 2007. Mineta said that if spaceship companies completed their testing before 2008, the Transportation Department would be ready as well.
"When the industry is set for liftoff, we will be ready to launch," Mineta said.
Mineta emphasized that the department would take steps to ensure the safety of commercial passenger spaceflights but would make sure the safety checks did not delay the start of service.
"We have an important role to play in ensuring the safety of commercial spaceflights, especially for passengers," Mineta said in remarks delivered in Washington to the Commercial Space Transportation Conference, or COMSTAC. "But we also have an obligation to encourage innovation and support new developments."
The Federal Aviation Administration, which is part of the Transportation Department, issued its first civilian astronaut wings in 2004 to Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, the pilots of the SpaceShipOne rocket plane's spaceflights in Mojave, Calif. One other Mojave-based operation, XCOR Aerospace, has already received a commercial launch license for test flights.
Meanwhile, New Mexico is in the midst of gaining an FAA license for its Southwest Regional Spaceport — which eventually would be used by British-based Virgin Galactic for suborbital spaceflights.
Since 2001, three millionaires have taken orbital trips to the international space station, but the FAA was not involved in those flights because they were handled by Russia's Federal Space Agency, using Soyuz spacecraft. Those trips are thought to have cost about $20 million each, while the anticipated price tag for the first commercial suborbital trips is in the neighborhood of $200,000.
This report includes information from The Associated Press and MSNBC.com.