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Breaking the final frontier

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Space tourism is being packaged as the ultimate trip -- almost as an extension of a normal flight but with incredible views, the experience of weightlessness and supersonic speeds.

Companies such as Virgin Galactic are taking bookings from the rich and famous for their sub-orbital flights they hope to start in 2008 -- around 200 have already been taken.

Have we almost reached the future we dreamt of and will space really be accessible to all?

Virgin Galactic's boss Sir Richard Branson obviously thinks so. Earlier this week he unveiled the most detailed plans of the company's spaceship, under advanced development in California.

It's being built by Scaled Composites, the company run by Burt Rutan who won the Ansari X-Prize for the first repeat sub-orbital space flight with his pioneering SpaceShipOne.

SpaceShipTwo is the tiny carbon fibre craft designed to carry seven passengers up to 65 miles above the earth, travelling at a speed of about 12,000mph.

Entering the edge of space those on board will experience weightlessness for about 15 minutes before beginning the journey back to earth.

"I would say most people in the world would love the opportunity to go into space. What we're trying to do is make space travel affordable and fun. Two years from now we'll be starting to take ordinary people into space," Branson told CNN.

These "ordinary people" are currently those who can afford $200,000 for a ticket. It's believed that Sigourney Weaver and even Paris Hilton have signed up.

But as with any nascent industry, it is thought that prices will fall as the business develop and competition increases, to around $50,000.

Virgin Galactic have stolen a march on space tourism, but other companies are getting ready to enter the race to bring the cosmos closer to the common man.

One of those manufactures is DreamSpace - a new company run in partnership with the Da Vinci Project, the group that lost out to Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne for the X-Prize.

Last month it unveiled plans for a commercial spacecraft at the International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico they hope will rival Virgin Galactic.

Brian Feeney, the company's president outlined the idea, which incorporates their XF1 rocket carried to a height of 80,000km by a giant helium balloon before it ignites its engines and heads to the edge of space. Ultimately the design will evolve to take-off from a runway, like a normal plane using a turbine engine.

If all tests go according to plan, Feeney hopes the following generation of vehicle, the XF2, could launch as early as 2008 and the company could begin to take deposits from potential passengers next year.

But while sub-orbital space flights will offer incredible views of the earth and passengers will experience weightlessness, is it really going into space?

Some don't think so, including former astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

"I'd really like to see orbital tourism take place and not just have it as a passenger ride on a Soyuz spacecraft going up to the space station," he told CNN.

Eric Anderson's company Space Adventures offer space travel for tourists at the other end of the price spectrum. Working in collaboration with the Russian Space Federation they have sent millionaires to the International Space Station (ISS), at a reported cost of around $20m a trip.

The last person to travel up to the ISS on a Soyuz rocket was Anousheh Ansari. With a six month training program, compared to three days of bonding and safety run-throughs with a Virgin Galactic flight, this is more akin to the spirit of adventure dreamt of by budding astronauts.

Anderson does concede that sub-orbital flights are part of the burgeoning space tourism industry. Space Adventures' latest plan is to move into the sub-orbital space flight market as well as continue to offer truer space travel experiences.

Their craft to rival SpaceShipTwo is being developed with the bureau that helped design the Russian space shuttle, and Anderson estimates the cost will be $100,000 for a flight. Heading further into the cosmos is also on the table, with Space Adventures planning a trip that circumnavigates the moon.

"It would be far more than an adventure, it would be true exploration," he told CNN.

And phenomenally expensive -- Anderson estimates it would cost around $100m for the six-day journey aboard a Soyuz spacecraft that would travel to within 100km of the moon's surface.

"A moon landing is really the ultimate in terms of lunar exploration. Clearly it's technically possible and will happen again in the future, but for now we're going to focus on our circumlunar flight."

So you pay your money and you take your choice, but another issue dominates these fledgling days of space tourism -- safety.

Virgin Galactic have played up the incredible experience that their flights will offer, making it appear like an extension of their commercial flight, but passengers will essentially still be sitting in a rocket powered by high-octane fuel.

"Space is risky, and safety will be one of the defining factors in the development of space tourism for the first few years," Anderson told CNN.

Space Shuttle crews work on the understanding that they have a 1-in-250 chance of not coming back. This compares with a 1-in-2 million likelihood of an accident when flying on a commercial plane.

For space tourists such as Anousheh Ansari, the benefits outweighed the risks.

"My husband knew that I would always take the chance to visit space even if I wasn't certain if I would come back. That's how strong my passion was," she told CNN.

For most though the desire to see the earth from space is something they would want tell their grandchildren about, rather than it be their last dramatic act.

The potential for mishaps and accidents in space has lead to inevitable predictions of a cottage industry for personal injury lawyers. Willis Inspace, a space insurance company believe that the early years will be especially difficult for space tourism companies as any hiatus in activity following a fatal accident could be just as catastrophic for their business.

SpaceX, a company developing launch vehicles, failed to successfully launch their Falcon 1 rocket earlier this year, likewise UP Aerospace's inaugural flight malfunctioned. Both are working on producing launching rockets, but their teething problems illustrate there is still some way to go before reliability and then public confidence will materialize.

However, for those involved in this exciting new area of travel, the future looks bright.

"In thirty years times, Space Adventures will have flown thousands of people into orbit and we may even see breakthrough technologies that will allow us to even travel between the planets," said Anderson.


Passengers on Virgin Galactic flights will experience weightlessness on their sub-orbital flights.


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