The European aerospace giant EADS is going into the space tourism business.
Its Astrium division says it will build a space plane capable of carrying fare-paying passengers on a sub-orbital ride more than 100km above the planet.
The vehicle, which will take off from a normal airport, will give the tourists a three-to-five-minute experience of weightlessness at the top of its climb.
Tickets are expected to cost up to 200,000 euros (£135,000), with flights likely to begin in 2012.
“We believe it is the will of human beings to visit space and we have to give them the possibility to do that,” said Francois Auque, the CEO of Astrium.
“Astrium is by far the largest space company in Europe, so we are very knowledgeable in all these matters. We believe our concept is extremely safe, extremely comfortable and cost effective,” he told BBC News.
EADS Astrium is the company that builds the Ariane rocket, which lofts most of the world’s commercial satellites. Its space jet is a very different concept, however.
The front end of a full-scale model was unveiled at a publicity event in Paris on Wednesday. From a certain angle, the vehicle resembles an ordinary executive aircraft – but its engineers claim it is in fact “revolutionary”.
The production model will use normal jet engines to take off and climb to 12km. From there, a rocket engine will kick the vehicle straight up, taking it beyond 60km in just 80 seconds. By the time the rocket shuts down, the craft should have sufficient velocity to carry it above 100km – into space.
As the plane then begins to fall back to Earth, the pilot will use small thrusters to control its altitude, guiding the vehicle into the atmosphere from where it will use its jet engines again to return to the airport.
The total journey time will be about one-and-a-half hours.
Astrium says there will be room for four passengers on each mission. Towards the top of the climb, these individuals will be able to float free in the cabin and look through large windows at the planet below.
Astrium is proposing a different technical solution to the one being pursued by airline boss Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic enterprise.
Branson’s operation – timed to start about 2009 – is basing its vehicles on the record-breaking SpaceShipOne rocket plane which became the first privately built craft to reach space in 2004.
SpaceShipOne had to be carried to a launch altitude by another vehicle before using rocket propulsion; and on its return from space, glided to its home runway. Astrium says its decision to go with a one-stage concept was driven by safety and economic considerations.
The Australian Marc Newson was employed to design the space plane’s interior. He said he had put great emphasis on the seats – which he describes as “hi-tech hammocks” – and the windows to maximise the flight experience.
“The windows are very similar to a civilian jet airliner but they’re about 30% bigger; but more importantly, there’re 15 windows and only four passengers, so there’re are plenty of opportunities to float around the interior of this cabin and take different views of space, the stars, the Moon, and the Earth,” Mr Newson explained.
“It will be amazing. You’ll actually be outside the Earth’s atmosphere; you’ll be able to see Earth as a spherical object and everything else around you will be black. There must be millions of people who have dreamt about this since they were little kids,” he told the BBC.
EADS Astrium says its space jet project is likely to cost a billion euros to develop. It will be looking for financial and industrial partners over the next year. It says that if development work starts in 2008, the first commercial flights could be made in 2012.
“The development of a new vehicle able to operate in altitudes between aircraft (20km) and below satellites (200km) could well be a precursor for rapid transport, point-to-point vehicles, or quick access to space,” Astrium said in a statement.
“Its development will contribute to maintaining and even enhancing European competencies in core technologies for space transportation.”
BBC News Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 June 2007, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK