Headlines > News > Inland firm launches plan to take tourists into space

Inland firm launches plan to take tourists into space

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Sat Feb 19, 2005 8:56 pm
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chabot imageBy TIM O’LEARY / The Press-Enterprise: A fledgling Temecula-based company, formed from a group that failed to make a predicted leap into space last year, is vowing to take customers to the final frontier next year.

If all goes as planned, AERA Corp. will launch its first commercial space flight, carrying a mission commander and six passengers, by late 2006.
But the Altairis spacecraft has not been built; it has no place to take off or land and you can’t yet book a flight.

The design is scheduled to be unveiled March 30 at a New York City planetarium and company officials say demand for such flights is rapidly growing.
“We are still working on the details,” said Kristie Tomkins, a New York-based media consultant for the company. “Stay tuned and we’ll be releasing more information in the next few months.”

News that the starry-eyed venture is based in Temecula surprised several city and business leaders.
The firm is not listed in local phone books and it has not obtained a city business license. It has not joined the Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce, officials there said Thursday.

Tomkins said the company has not taken any of those steps because it is so new. Information on the company’s Internet site — www.aeraspace.com — said the privately held firm was formed in 2002.
Tomkins said the company has an office in Temecula, but she would not disclose the address.

Assistant City Manager Jim O’Grady, who handles many of Temecula’s economic development matters, also had not heard of the company. Information contained in the firm’s announcement prompted him to say: “Holy cow.”
“If this is really true and it really happens, it would be quite a prestigious thing,” he said. “We’re going to be on the map in a new way.”

One of AERA’s founders is Bill M. Sprague, who led one of 23 teams vying for the $10 million Ansari X Prize. That prize was won in October by SpaceShipOne, a privately funded craft whose team included aviation pioneer Burt Rutan.
At that time, Sprague’s team, American Astronautics Corp. of Oceanside, was planning to build a seven-person spacecraft. In a March interview with The Press-Enterprise, Sprague predicted that his craft would be flying by the end of 2004.

His statement quoted in the AERA announcement was equally upbeat.

“Passengers can expect the ultimate luxury space travel adventure with a full-service package that begins with astronaut training and culminates with a suborbital journey,” said Sprague, AERA’s chairman, chief scientist and chief executive officer.

AERA materials say Sprague has more than 30 years experience with key companies involved in rocket propulsion, launch-vehicle development and other engineering and space-related fields

Tomkins said Sprague would not be available for interviews prior to the March 30 unveiling of the craft’s design.

The president of another company that competed for the X Prize, Michael J. Gallo of Kelly Space and Technology Inc. of San Bernardino, said he had not heard of Sprague or AERA.

“That doesn’t mean they are not viable or don’t have credibility,” said Gallo, who is also chairman of the California Space Authority, a nonprofit corporation representing the state’s space interests.

He said the quest for commercial space travel doesn’t hinge on technology.

“It really becomes a financial challenge,” Gallo said. “It really isn’t rocket science, no pun intended. It’s something that dates back to the 1950s in technology.”

He noted that the winning X Prize team spent more than $20 million developing and testing their craft and launching the flights.

Matt Grimison, communications manager for the Aerospace Industries Association, an aerospace trade group, said he also had not heard of AERA Corp.

While skepticism remains, the possibility of offering commercial flights into space or zero-gravity altitudes is becoming a reality, Grimison said.

“We are looking at this as something beyond the pie-in-the-sky stage,” he said. “We think this is realistic and coming down the pike. Obviously, the X Prize showed it could be done. As far as the individual companies involved, though, we’ll have to see how it all works out.”

Grimison said the victory of SpaceShipOne would likely give that team an edge in launching a space flight business.

SpaceShipOne captured the prize after successfully completing two high-altitude flights in a week. The second voyage took the craft to 71.5 miles above the Earth.

Besides Rutan, other key figures on that team included Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic airways. Branson has started Virgin Galactic, a company promoting and developing space tourism

A news release issued in September by the company that produced SpaceShipOne said Virgin Galactic plans to begin offering flights in 2007 at a per-passenger price of $190,000. The cost to develop the spaceship and operate the flight program has been estimated at $100 million.

An Oklahoma partnership, Rocketplane Limited Inc., announced in October it will also offer space flights beginning in 2007 at a price of $99,500 per passenger.

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