Space is becoming less of a frontier, with Europe's aerospace company becoming the latest to propose a way for ordinary people — albeit those with deep pockets — to experience spaceflight.
Astrium, the space systems arm of European aerospace company EADS, says it wants to build a four-passenger rocket-equipped jet to send space tourists to an altitude of 60 miles above the Earth for three minutes of weightlessness and a rare view of Earth's curvature.
"We think there is a market for this, people are willing to pay," said Astrium's designer for the project, Jerome Bertrand.
At the Paris air show this week, Astrium's mock-up of the proposed spacecraft's front section showed specially designed seats that swivel to minimize discomfort for passengers travelling at three times the speed of sound. Astrium is seeking partners and hopes to be able to launch the project work next year, with the first space flights starting in 2012.
Once in space, the passengers can unbuckle to float around and gaze through any of the Astrium jet's 15 windows before the pilot guides the craft back to Earth.
The cost? As much as $268,000 for the flight, including a week's training.
Although steep, that is still a bargain compared to the $20 million that Russia charges for a seat on its Soyuz TMA-10 rocket for a trip to the International Space Station.
But next year, if preparations remain on schedule, Virgin Galactic, part of billionaire businessman Richard Branson's Virgin Group, will begin taking space tourists into suborbital space for $200,000 per ticket.
Virgin Galactic's six-passenger spacecraft is based on SpaceShipOne, which three years ago on Thursday took off from California's Mojave desert to punch through the atmosphere to become the world's first privately funded spacecraft.
Astrium's executive jet-sized craft is designed to take off from a normal runway, powered by two turbofan jet engines.
Once it reaches an altitude of 8 miles, it ignites a rocket derived from EADS Astrium's Ariane series burning liquid oxygen and methane to push the craft to 100 km above Earth.
Virgin Galactic's proposal is slightly different, where the craft is attached to a larger plane for take-off from the ground. It detaches at 50,000 feet from the carrier aircraft before rocketing into sub-orbital space.