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First space tourist flights could come next year

The first forays into space tourism might disappoint some would-be space adventurers, as they are to be carried to the edge of space for a few brief moments of weightlessness before heading back

By Ivan Couronne  /  AFP, WASHINGTON

The New Shepard booster, developed by Amazon.com Inc’s Blue Origin, lifts off during a test flight at an undisclosed location in an undated photograph.

Photo: AFP/ BLUE ORIGIN

The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism have said they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights — though neither has set a firm date.

Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos, are racing to be the first to finish their tests — with both companies using radically different technology.

Neither Virgin nor Blue Origin’s passengers would find themselves orbiting the Earth: Instead, their weightless experience would last just minutes. It is an offering far different from the first space tourists, who paid tens of millions of US dollars to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in the 2000s.

Having paid for a much cheaper ticket — costing US$250,000 with Virgin, as yet unknown with Blue Origin — the new round of space tourists would be propelled dozens of kilometers into the atmosphere, before coming back down to Earth. By comparison, the ISS is in orbit 400km from our planet.

The goal is to approach or pass through the imaginary line marking where space begins — either the Karman line, at 100km, or the 80km boundary recognized by the US Air Force. At this altitude, the sky looks dark and the curvature of the Earth can be seen clearly.

With Virgin Galactic, six passengers and two pilots are boarded onto SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet.

The VSS Unity is to be attached to a carrier spacecraft — the WhiteKnightTwo — from which it would then detach at about 15km. Once released, the spaceship would fire up its rocket and head for the sky.

Then, the passengers would float in zero gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.

The descent is slowed down by a “feathering” system that sees the spacecraft’s tail pivot, as if arching, before returning to normal and gliding to land at Virgin’s “spaceport” in the New Mexico desert.

In total, the mission lasts between 90 minutes and two hours.

During a May 29 test in California’s Mojave Desert, the spaceship reached an altitude of 34km, heading for space.

In October 2014, the Virgin spaceship broke down in flight due to a piloting error, killing one of two pilots on board. The tests later resumed with a new craft.

The company has also reached an agreement to open a second “spaceport” at Italy’s Tarente-Grottaglie Airport, in the south of the country.

Branson in May told BBC Radio 4 that he hoped to be one of the first space passengers in the next 12 months.

About 650 people make up the rest of the waiting list, Virgin told reporters.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin has developed a system closer to the traditional rocket: the New Shepard.

On the journey, six passengers take their place in a “capsule” fixed to the top of a 18m-long rocket.

After launching, it detaches and continues its trajectory several kilometers toward the sky.

During an April 29 test, the capsule made it to 106km.

After a few minutes of weightlessness, during which passengers can take in the view through large windows, the capsule gradually falls back to Earth with three large parachutes and retrorockets used to slow the spacecraft.

From take-off to landing, the flight took 10 minutes during the latest test.

Until now, tests have only been carried out using dummies at Blue Origin’s West Texas site.

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