BEVERLY HILLS, California — Plans for a two-seater aircraft designed to shuttle tourists to the brink of outer space were unveiled Wednesday by a firm aiming to secure a slice of the nascent galactic travel market.
California-based XCOR Aerospace hopes that its Lynx craft will allow space tourists to get a tantalising glimpse of the heavens for a fraction of the cost of similar projects planned by companies such as Virgin.
Jeff Greason, chief executive of XCOR, said the Lynx, which has not yet been built, would be able to take off and land like an airplane and make four daily flights lasting around 30 minutes.
"She takes off and lands like an airplane, using only rocket power. However, it's airframe is designed from scratch to take advantage of the rocket," Greason told reporters at a press conference.
"It gives that vehicle the performance to fly off the ground to the edge of space, providing people a view of the bright sky above, and letting them look at the earth and the atmosphere below."
The craft, which is smaller than a business jet at just 8.5 meters (27.9 feet) in length, would be able to seat a pilot and one passenger, Greason said.
The Lynx Mark I would be able to reach an altitude of 61 kilometers (38 miles) with a speed of Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound.
The craft would go hurtling through the sky in a three-minute climb before reaching the edge of space, giving passengers a fleeting experience of near-weightlessness before returning to Earth.
Greason said the first test flights of the craft should take place in 2010 with the first commercial flights expected up to two years later.
He said tickets would be made available via adventure travel companies and would cost around half the price of the estimated 200,000 dollars it will cost for seats on Virgin Galactic's first flights in 2010.
The Lynx's first flights will take off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Former NASA Astronaut and space shuttle mission commander Rick Searfoss said he had never imagined returning to space following his retirement in 1998.
"Ten years ago, when I left NASA, I was quite sure I would never fly to space again," he said. "Within the last two years, I've been telling my wife, It's not a question of if, it's a question of when.
"And the key difference too is that she actually could go with me."