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Firm books launch services

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Wed Mar 16, 2005 12:46 am
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By TIM O’LEARY pe.com: A fledgling Temecula-based company that plans to fly customers into space by the end of 2006 has booked Cape Canaveral as its launch pad.

The agreement struck by AERA Corp. is the first between the Air Force and a company that plans to take commercial customers into space, said Rick Blucker, chief of plans and programs, 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.

Under the agreement, the Air Force would provide AERA with a launch and landing site, track its spaceship by radar and also provide telemetry and other support services. The company would pay for the yet-to-be determined costs of those services and indemnify the Air Force against any lawsuits or damage claims, Blucker said in a recent e-mail.

The announcement came about three weeks before AERA Corp. plans to unveil the design of its seven-person Altairis spacecraft.

“Altairis will be launched from the same facilities where human spaceflight history was made with the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle missions,” Bill M. Sprague, AERA’s chairman and chief executive officer, said in a recent news release.

Although Air Force missions are the top priority at the base, new laws and President Bush’s Space Transportation Policy have opened the door for military assistance for corporate space ventures, he said.

“We are indeed leaning forward as much as our authorities will allow to facilitate commercial space transportation,” Blucker said.

A previous AERA announcement of its commercial flight timetable caught some Temecula officials and area business leaders by surprise because no one knew the firm is based in the city. The privately-held firm was formed in 2002.

The company is not listed in local phone books and it has not obtained a city business license. At that time, an AERA spokeswoman said the company simply had not yet taken those steps.

The flight schedule announcement also sparked skepticism over whether a company that does not have an aircraft can be ready to take passengers into space in about 1½ years. AERA is seeking to make its mark in a growing field of companies that say they plan to offer trips into space within a few years.

AERA officials acknowledge that they face several hurdles in the months ahead.

“While we still have much to do between now and our first launch, the Air Force has been extremely helpful to us so far,” said Lewis Reynolds, AERA’s president and chief operating officer.

Sprague previously 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 involved 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 2004 interview with The Press-Enterprise, Sprague predicted that his craft would be flying by the end of 2004. The group did not meet the timetable.

Sprague and other AERA officials plan to unveil the design of the Altairis on March 30 in New York City.

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