With a fleet of rocketships and two spaceports on the way, a high-flying tourism firm is taking passenger spaceflight to the next level.
In the last week, the Arlington, Virginia-based firm Space Adventures has announced plans for a new suborbital spacecraft and spaceports near major airports in the United Arab Emirates and Singapore that, it hopes, will draw eager customers seeking the space experience.
"These sites in the United Arab Emirates and in Singapore are just the initial steps [for private spaceflight]," Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson told SPACE.com. "They are essentially the stead to rally around."
At the heart of Space Adventures' plan is the Explorer spacecraft, a vehicle to be developed under a partnership with the Texas-based Prodea - a firm founded by the Ansari family, which put up the $10 million prize money and their namesake for the suborbital X Prize competition.
"We are absolutely building a global market," Anderson said. "I think it's a huge milestone in private spaceflight."
Space Adventures has been a staple of sorts for orbital space tourism, helping millionaires reach the International Space Station (ISS) on 10-day trips with announced costs of about $20 million each. U.S. scientist and CEO Gregory Olsen - who reached the ISS in October 2005 - was the third and most recent space tourist.
Building on Cosmopolis
In addition to brokering deals for ISS-bound millionaires, Space Adventures has also supported a pair of spacecraft development efforts: the Xerus vehicle with XCOR Aerospace and Cosmopolis XXI (C-21), a multi-passenger space plane designed by Russia's Myasishchev Design Bureau (MDB).
It is Cosmopolis from which Space Adventures' Explorer series is derived. Both vehicles are designed to be launched via a parent aircraft - in this case, the M-55X aircraft - much like the SpaceShipOne craft that won the Ansari X Prize.
But while Cosmopolis was designed to carry two passengers and one pilot, Explorer vehicles will haul up to five people to suborbital space.
"It's actually much more advanced than [Cosmopolis]," Anderson said of the Explorer system. "We haven't disclosed the design, but that doesn't mean that we don't have one. We're announcing things one at a time."
MDB is also designing the Explorer spacecraft for Space Adventures and Prodea. The Russian firm assured that the vehicle will come equipped with "several exciting features" to enhance a space tourist's flight experience.
"Additionally, the safety of the passengers is our chief aim, and the Explorer will make use of several safety systems that we have unique experience in designing and implementing for the last 40 years," explained MDB chief designer Valery Novikov in a written statement.
Anderson said Explorer vehicle's development is being supervised by Russia's Federal Space Agency.
While Space Adventures has not yet released specific details about its Explorer vehicles aside from their intended occupancy and maximum altitude, the fact that they will launch from the same M-55X parent craft hints that they may be similar to Cosmopolis, though the addition of two seats aboard Explorer suggests a larger cabin.
For Cosmopolis flights, the 55,115-pound (25,000-kilogram) M-55X aircraft was slated to launch the 4,409-pound (2,000-kilogram) suborbital craft from an altitude of about 16.7 miles (27 kilometers). The entire flight, from takeoff up to 62 miles (100 kilometers) and landing, was expected to last about 6.5 hours.
Whether those details will hold for Explorer flights - which are expected to offer up to five minutes of weightlessness at a time - remains to be seen.
"More information will be announced in the future," Space Adventures spokesperson Erin Lundberg told SPACE.com.
Space Adventures officials did say that it intends to sell Explorer vehicles to operator companies to conduct the actual spaceflights.
At least two passengers are apparently already set to ride aboard a Space Adventures-related suborbital flight.
According to an October 2005 report by China Daily, Chinese businessman Jian Fang reportedly paid $100,000 for a 90-minute suborbital spaceflight with Space Adventures. In September 2005, the space tourism firm itself announced that Brian Emmett of Mountain View, California had won a seat aboard a future suborbital vehicle.
Both flights were reportedly set for 2007 at the time. Space Adventures officials said they have received about 200 reservations for future suborbital flights from individuals representing 18 different countries.
Deals are also in place to construct a $265 million spaceport at the Ras Al-Khaimah International Airport in Ras Al-Khaimah - the northernmost of seven emirates the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - with a $115 million facility to be built near Singapore's Changi International Airport, Space Adventures officials said.
"After we initiate operations here, we look forward to expanding operations outside of the United Arab Emirates," Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, crown prince of Ras Al-Khaimah, in a statement.
Anderson said Al Qasimi has been extremely supportive and invested $30 million into the spaceport project.
Space Adventures is also working with a consortium of investors in Singapore to develop Spaceport Singapore, a facility that will offer not only suborbital spaceflights, but also astronaut training, parabolic flights to simulate weightlessness, and other high-altitude attractions.
"With the proposed Spaceport Singapore, we now stand at the threshold of an unprecedented opportunity to launch into space practically from our own backyard," said Lim Neo Chian, chief of the Singapore Tourism Board, in a statement.
The announcement of both spaceports does not rule out American spaceport in Space Adventures' future, though several unrelated projects are already underway in the U.S.
"We're still analyzing potential locations," Anderson said. "We'd love to be opening a spaceport in the United States."
In the meantime, the space tourism firm is pressing ahead with its orbital program.
Japanese entrepreneur Daisuke "Dice-K" Enomoto is set to be the firm's next paying passenger to the ISS in October. His flight will follow those of Olsen, South Africa's Mark Shuttleworth in 2002 and U.S. businessman Dennis Tito in 2001.
"There is still a market for orbital spaceflight and I certainly hope it will continue," Anderson said.