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Koreans plan space tours

XCOR Aerospace
Click for video: The Lynx Mark I rocket plane, shown in this artist's conception,

would serve as a test bed for a higher-flying Lynx Mark II. Click on the image

to watch a video from XCOR's March 2008 announcement about the Lynx.

XCOR Aerospace and Yecheon Astro Space Center today announced a deal that would eventually provide rides to the edge of outer space from South Korea, in a rocket plane made in the U.S.A.

The $30 million project calls for the development of a suborbital spaceport at Yecheon, which would serve as the Asian base of operations for California-based XCOR's Lynx Mark II rocket plane. Today's announcement didn't provide a flight timetable, but if XCOR sticks to its hoped-for schedule, the first Mark II plane could be flying in the 2012-2013 time frame.

The deal is dependent on approvals from the U.S. government for export arrangements, as well as from the South Korean government for launch operations.

XCOR Aerospace would operate the Lynx under what is known as a "wet lease" model, which is common in the maritime and aviation market: The space center would pay XCOR for flying and maintaining the craft, and perhaps for training the paying participants as well. XCOR's executives hope such an arrangement would avoid many of the problems that launch providers have faced with U.S. export regulations.

"This is a groundbreaking opportunity for our company, our industry and a very good opportunity for the U.S. to set an example of responsible international commerce in space transportation," Jeff Greason, XCOR's chief executive officer, said in today's announcement. "To our knowledge, this is the first time that a U.S. commercial suborbital launch vehicle will undergo the export licensing and approval process."

Jo Jae-Seong, the space center's founder and chief executive director, said XCOR was chosen for the Korean venture because the Lynx represented "the best mix of safe design, reliable clean propulsion, skilled team members, full reusability, ease of operation, turnaround time, up-front cost and long-term cost to operate."

"We look forward to a long-term relationship wtih XCOR and Lynx," Jo said.

Charles Lurio, writer/publisher of The Lurio Report, said the deal could be a "big breakthrough" for suborbital space entrepreneurs.

"Korean funding will come from a mix of private and public entitites after final approvals in the first quarter of 2010," he wrote. "There are no absolute guarantees until then, but Yecheon has already put 'skin in the game' with an initial payment to XCOR on Monday, December 7."

XCOR Aerospace declined to detail the financial arrangements.

The announcement described Yecheon Astro Space Center as a nonprofit venture that operates an aerospace training center, an astronomy research center and planetarium, a commercial space camp and a helicopter tour service about 150 miles (240 kilometers) southeast of Seoul.

"It's the Mojave of South Korea," XCOR spokesman Mike Massee, referring to the California town where his company is based. "It's in a rural area, and it's right next to a military base."

Payments from the Korean venture should help XCOR move ahead with its development of the two-person Lynx vehicle, starting with a Mark I prototype version that would fly at least 38 miles (61 kilometers) high, and probably higher. Testing of the Mark I is to begin in late 2010 or early 2011. Those tests would be factored into a Mark II version to be built using lightweight composite materials capable of withstanding the heat of atmospheric re-entry.

The Mark I would provide moments of weightlessness plus an out-of-this-world view. The Mark II would go to the next level - soaring above 62 miles (100 kilometers) in altitude, the internationally accepted boundary of outer space. XCOR's chief operations officer, Andrew Nelson, has said the Mark II could be ready a year or two after the Mark I.

In today's announcement, Nelson said he hoped the partnership model used for the South Korean venture would set a precedent for other international space ventures. "I think the wet-lease model is an innovative means to safely operate, maintain and provide physical security for the Lynx while ensuring that U.S. export control issues are addressed completely," he said.

Greason said the South Koreans had their own regulatory issues to work through.

"South Korean authorities had already identified the need to develop regulations for commercial space activity, and that process is in the early stages," Greason said in an e-mail.  "XCOR has considerable experience with the U.S. space regulatory regime and, together with our Korean partners at the Yecheon Astro Space Center will work with the Korean authorities towards an appropriate regulatory regime."

In addition to the South Korean venture, XCOR has set up an arrangement with RocketShip Tours for $95,000 flights on the Lynx. Massee said more than 30 advance tickets have been sold to date.

"At this stage in the game, we are much more focused from a sales perspective on Lynx vehicle wet leases, propulsion systems and related subsystems for commercial customers and government clients.  And technically our primary focus is getting the Lynx subsystems built and the vehicle integrated and tested," Massee wrote in an e-mail. "Selling advance tickets is a part of all that, but not our primary focus."

XCOR isn't the only company that's relying on international partners to launch commercial space services. Virgin Galactic, which rolled out its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane last week, has brought Arab investors into its suborbital space venture. That arrangement is reportedly under review by U.S. authorities.

This month, Chicago-based PlanetSpace teamed up with Excalibur Almaz, a company based on the Isle of Man, to put forward a bailout plan for the bankrupt Sea Launch venture. PlanetSpace has been working on a hypersonic glider that could be used for orbital cargo services or space passenger flights.

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