What a View! Space Bubbles Would Thrill Tourists
An artist's illustration of a new two-passenger vehicle designed to give panoramic views of Earth during suborbital flights.
Credit: Rocket Racing League.

The Rocket Racing League is teaming up with a private aerospace company and the state of New Mexico to build a new fleet of suborbital spacecraft designed to give space tourists a view of the Earth unlike any other.

Passengers would be surrounded in a clear, bubble-like shell that gives a panoramic, 360-degree view of Earth and space, rather than be limited by the round window portals offered by other private spaceflight efforts, the league announced Friday.

The racing league accounted the plan with New Mexico and the Mesquite, Texas-based firm Armadillo Aerospace today during the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge in Las Cruces, NM, where the private space shots would blast off from Spaceport America.

Under the joint venture, Armadillo Aerospace and the racing league would build a fleet of vertical launch and landing spacecraft capable of flying two passengers on suborbital spaceflights.

Tickets will cost about $100,000, about half that set for rides on billionaire Sir Richard Branson?s Virgin Galactic spaceliners, league officials said. Passengers would likely launch into suborbital space about 62 miles (100 km) above Earth and experience at least a few minutes of weightlessness before beginning their descent under the plan.

"The price of space is coming down to Earth," said Granger Whitelaw, Chief Executive Officer of Rocket Racing Inc., in a statement. "And thanks to Armadillo's ships and New Mexico's spaceport, human beings will be treated to the most stellar views in the galaxy."

Led by video game developer John Carmack, Armadillo Aerospace is one of two teams competing in the Challenge, which offers up to $2 million in prize money for successful demonstration of mock moon landers capable of vertical takeoffs and landings. The X Prize Foundation oversees the Lunar Lander Challenge for NASA?s Centennial Challenges program, which provides the prize money.

The Rocket Racing League formed in 2005 to offer aerial NASCAR-style rocket races with six teams currently on its roster. The league held its inaugural demonstration flights earlier this year. Armadillo Aerospace is one of two firms providing engines for the league?s racers. XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., also developed a rocket engine used by the Rocket Racing League.

Other private suborbital space tourism efforts, such as Virgin Galactic and the Lynx spacecraft under development by XCOR, offer rides aboard ground- or- air-launched spaceships that land on runways like an aircraft.

Prototypes for the new vertical launch and landing spacecraft could be ready by 2009, with initial manned flight tests slated for 2010, league officials said. In addition to space tourism jaunts, the new vehicles could also be used to launch microgravity experiments or serve as a platform for astrophysics, reconnaissance or high-altitude meteorological observations, they added.

"I am honored that Rocket Racing, Inc. and Armadillo Aerospace have chosen New Mexico to set up shop," said New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in a written statement. "Spaceport America and the state of New Mexico are proud partners and together we are writing the next chapter of space transportation."

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Click here for updates from the Lunar Lander Challenge or watch the live webcast: http://space.xprize.org/webcast