If the aspirations of more than 20 teams of aerospace scientists and engineers scattered across the globe are realized, flight travel will take a giant leap forward next year—beyond the stratosphere. The teams are racing to claim the $10 million X Prize, established in 1996 by engineer turned entrepreneur Peter Diamandis to jump-start the space tourism industry. The award will go to the first commercially viable suborbital vehicle: a vessel capable of carrying passengers 62 miles above earth, safely returning them to the ground, and repeating the trip within two weeks. With the winner expected to be announced in 2004, teams are already developing radical new technology: California-based Scaled Composites already has a plan to use a high-altitude carrier aircraft to launch a small passenger rocket into space.
Promising clients trips aboard suborbital vessels—including those developed by X Prize contenders—Space Adventures (www.spaceadventures.com), the company that arranged multi-millionaire Dennis Tito's journey into space, has presold more than 100 tickets for $98,000 apiece. Though most flights would last only an hour, Space Adventures has created a package with ground training in a simulator and possibly even zero-gravity flights and centrifuge practice. The payoff?Fifteen minutes of weightless glory, views of 2,000 to 3,000 miles of Earth's curvature, and the distinction of going where only a few hundred have gone before.