Space Tourism Group Picks Florida Launch Site
An artist's concept of the Altairis rocket, a passenger-carrying suborbital rocket, rolling out for launch. Space tourism firm AERA Corp. is developing the vehicle.
Credit: AERA Corp.

A private space tourism firm with plans to launch civilians on suborbital joyrides has pinned down its launch pad with a little help from the U.S. Air Force (USAF).

The firm, Temecula, New Mexico's AERA Corp., has signed an agreement with the USAF to use launch complexes at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Base for future passenger space shots.

"It was essential to put [it] in place very early in our process," said Lewis Reynolds, AERA president and chief operating officer, of the launch site during a telephone interview. "And the facilities there are essentially the best available the world."

AERA's agreement with USAF, renewable after five years, allows the company access to the Air Force Station' launch facilities and support facilities as a base for Altairis, six-passenger spacecraft currently slated to begin test flights - and possibly a commercial spaceflight - in the fall of 2006.

But even with a launch site in hand, AERA Corp. still faces major challenges ahead to make its spaceflight goals. While the company has funding from venture capitalists, plans for a spacecraft production facility are still being finalized. Commercial spaceflight regulation hurdles and hiring needs are also a challenge.

"We know it's a bold goal, but we believe it to be obtainable and we are going to keep pressing forward," Reynolds said. "Our survival and long-term goals depend on our ability to do this safely and cost-efficiently."

Preparing for Altairis

Reynolds said the Altairis spacecraft is an evolved version of a vehicle designed by Bill Sprague - AERA founder and CEO - while he led his American Astronautics team during the Ansari X Prize competition.

The current design calls for a vertical launch spacecraft that would then make a horizontal landing. AERA plans to unveil its Altairis design in spring 2005 during an event in New York City, company officials said.

Passenger launches would include pre-flight training and a 40-minute ride, according to AERA's website.

"We'll initially enter the market with five spacecraft, and then follow in the first year with another six," Reynolds said of AERA's current plans.

Since the spacecraft itself is designed to be computer-controlled, a series of unmanned spaceflights are planned before the first passenger launch, he added.

The $10 million X Prize contest - won last year after two successful flights by the privately-developed spacecraft SpaceShipOne - challenged civilians to build and launch a reusable sub-orbital vehicle capable of carrying the mass of three people to the edge of space and back.

A growing market

AERA's launch site announcement is the latest in series of private space efforts aimed at providing spaceflights for paying civilians.

However, to date only one private effort - SpaceShipOne designed by aerospace veteran Burt Rutan and financed by millionaire Paul Allen - has managed to not only to produce a working spaceship, but successfully fly manned sub-orbital spaceflights three separate times, two of them within two weeks of each other to nab the X Prize.

Following last year's successful - and very public - launches of SpaceShipOne, British billionaire Richard Branson pledged to license the spacecraft's technology for commercial spaceflights at $200,000 a ride aboard Virgin Galactic flights beginning in 2007.

The aerospace firm SpaceDev, of Poway, California, is also making a bid for manned spaceflights with its Dream Chaser sub-orbital spacecraft - which is part of a joint project with NASA's Ames Research Center to study hybrid propulsion-based hypersonic testbeds for human spaceflight. SpaceDev officials hope to make their first test flights by 2008 if full funding is secured.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma-based firm Rocketplane, Limited has announced its intentions to rollout its sub-orbital spacecraft Rocketplane XP from Burns Flat - possibly in mid-2006 - with the first passenger flights following a year later at around $150,000 a ride. XCOR Aerospace has set the passenger ticket price for its Xerus spacecraft at about $98,000.

Still other homegrown commercial spaceflight efforts, including Canada's separate Canadian Arrow and da Vinci projects, as well as U.S. efforts by firms like Armadillo Aerospace and Space Transport Corp. among others, are working to build their own human-carrying spacecraft. In 2006, X Prize officials are preparing to hold the X Prize Cup in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

A 2002 report by the market research group Futron Corp. reported that by 2021, 15,000 space tourists could be seeking sub-orbital flight tickets.

"Not everyone is going to pay $100,000 or $200,000 for a rocket flight," Reynolds said. "[But] there's tremendous, pent-up and unfulfilled demand out there."