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Space is the place


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POSTED: Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The launching of commercial space tourism is foreseeable in Hawaii within the next three years if the state can find a way to provide the initial funding necessary. The opportunity should not be brushed aside, as the activity is likely to bring revenue far exceeding the initial cost of applying for a federal spaceport license.

A bill allowing the startup is not on Gov. Linda Lingle's veto list, and the administration advised legislators that it would seek sources of funding that would not cut into the state's budget. The cost has been estimated at $500,000 for creating an industry that proponents say could bring in $200 million a year in user fees.

Space tourism was sponsored eight years ago by Russia, and travelers were charged more than $20 million for 10-day visits to space. Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Global, which asked for the Hawaii legislation, wants to begin offering spaceflights from Honolulu Airport for five people aboard a space plane, from which rockets would be fired at 40,000 feet, propelling it to 3,500 mph to 62 miles above the Earth, then turning around and landing on the Big Island.

Tickets for such a flight will cost $200,000, and Jim Crisafulli, the Hawaii director of aerospace development, is confident that many people will spend that amount for a package that includes a week of spaceflight training, resort accommodations and short simulations of weightlessness. As the industry grows, competition is expected to lower the price to $20,000.

Both the Honolulu and Kona airports are able to handle the runway takeoffs and landings, similar to those of commercial airliners, while New Mexico is spending more than $200 million to build a new infrastructure that will be sufficient but inferior, according to George D. French Jr., Rocketplane Global's chief executive. The spacecraft is now in the design stage and is planned to be built in a year and a half.

Hawaii space tourism would face competition. Virgin Galactic, part of flamboyant Briton Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, has begun receiving down payments from passengers booking seats on spacecrafts. The company will use the New Mexico facility at first but reportedly will look elsewhere for launchings. Hawaii would become the eighth state to be granted a spaceport license by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Such an industry in Hawaii would not be limited to offering space journeys up and down from the islands, French said. The “;second-generation spaceplanes with much greater speed”; will be able to fly from Japan or the mainland to Hawaii in an hour or less within five to 10 years after the company's first launching, he told lawmakers. He said commercial spaceports are being developed in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.