The competition for space tourists is playing out in China as well as the United States, with rival companies signing up well-to-do customers for future flights. The faceoff has as much to do with winning a foothold in the world's biggest potential market as well as chalking up another first in the annals of spaceflight.
More than a year ago, Virginia-based Space Adventures announced that Hong Kong-based businessman Jiang Feng was paying $100,000 to take a suborbital passenger flight aboard an unspecified spaceship that has yet to be built.
Now an adviser to British-based Virgin Galactic says a businessman from eastern China's Zhejiang province will be among the first 100 passengers for Virgin's SpaceShipTwo suborbital rocket plane. Like Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic is one of the leaders in the emerging space tourism industry.
The Shanghai adviser, Rupert Hoogewerf, told Reuters that the businessman has paid Virgin's $200,000 fare for the flight package. Hoogewerf said the man was under 40 and had asked for his identity to be kept secret.
About 20 men and three women from China — out of 65,000 people globally — have voiced interest in the Virgin Galactic flights, and a female Chinese space traveler had still to be selected, said Hoogewerf, who publishes an annual list of China's wealthiest people.
Jiang as well as Virgin's mystery client are vying for the title of "first Chinese space tourist" — but it's not yet clear which one will fly first. Virgin Galactic, owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, has said it will begin taking on passengers in the 2008-2009 time frame. Its rocket plane, modeled after the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne, is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots on 2.5-hour flights to the edge of space.
Virgin's first spaceflights would take off from Mojave, Calif., with a move to New Mexico's future spaceport planned for 2009-2010.
Space Adventures, meanwhile, has forged agreements with a variety of spaceship developers — including a deal with the Russian Federal Space Agency and the Prodea venture capital firm reportedly aimed at beginning suborbital tourism service in the next couple of years. However, Space Adventures' time frame has shifted over the past couple of years: Last year, the company projected that Jiang would be able to fly in 2007.
Since 2001, Space Adventures has arranged for four private-sector space passengers to take orbital trips to the international space station, at an estimated cost of $20 million each. One of those passengers, Iranian-American entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, is a partner in the Prodea venture.
This report includes information from Reuters and MSNBC.com.