Pioneering captains of industry explore the new frontiers of space

By Patrick Rahir, AFP

PARIS — With spacecraft that can carry tourists into orbit and connect Paris to New York in less than two hours, the new heroes of space travel are not astronauts but daring captains of industry. This new breed of space pioneers are all using private money to push the final frontier as government space programs fall away.

Times have changed. Once the space race was led by the likes of the U.S. space agency NASA that put the first man on the moon in 1969. Today it is entrepreneur Elon Musk — the founder of Tesla electric cars and space exploration company SpaceX — who wants to reach Mars in the 2020s.

The furthest advanced — and most highly publicized — private space project is led by Richard Branson, the British founder of the Virgin Group.

His shuttle, SpaceShipTwo, will be launched at high altitude from a weird-looking four-engined mother ship — which can carry two pilots and up to six passengers — before embarking on a three-hour suborbital flight.

Branson and his sons will be the first passengers aboard the shuttle when it is expected to launch later this year.

His company Virgin Galactic was given the green light in May by the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to carry passengers from a base in New Mexico, which is named “Spaceport America” — the stuff of science fiction. US$250,000 a Ticket The US$250,000 (190,000 euros) price of a ticket has not deterred more than 600 people, including celebrities such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio, from booking their seats. The U.S. spaceflight company XCOR is more affordable, offering a one-hour suborbital flight for US$100,000 (74,000 euros) on a shuttle that takes off from the Mojave Desert in California. It has already sold nearly 300 tickets.

“The first prototype is being assembled. Hopefully, the test flights will begin before the end of the year, and commercial flights before the end of 2015,” Michiel Mol, an XCOR board member, told AFP.