The Next Frontier: KLM to sell tickets for suborbital space flights

KLM has partnered with Space Experience Curacao (SCX), a commercial suborbital space flight venture planning to operate out of its Space Port on the Caribbean island of Curacao. SCX will offer passengers a few minutes of weightlessness beyond Earth’s atmosphere and a view of the planet from about 105 km (65 miles) above ground. KLM has registered for the first flights from the island in the Dutch Antilles and also will be supporting future suborbital flights through promotion and sale of the tickets, for example as part of vacation packages to Curacao. The airline will also enable frequent fliers to put their points toward flights into space. KLM CEO Peter Hartman said of the new suborbital spaceflight partnership: “It is a fantastic project that totally fits the pioneering spirit of KLM.” A KLM spokeswoman said the airline still had to work out exactly what the criteria would be to earn a space flight ticket — which sells for EUR70,000 (USD95,000). 

XCOR ‘Lynx’
Space Experience Curacao was founded in 2008 by a former commander of the Royal Dutch Air Force and an air force test pilot and has backing from private equity investors and Hato International Airport in Curacao. The company signed a deal in October 2010 to lease a sub-orbital spacecraft called the ‘Lynx’ and a pilot from U.S-based XCOR Aerospace,. The Lynx takes off and lands horizontally and is designed to fly to over 100 km in altitude up to four times per day. The spacecraft has just two seats, meaning that it can carry just one passenger at a time who is sitting right up front like a co-pilot, instead of in back. The total flight time would be about 30 minutes, with the passenger experiencing just over four minutes of weightlessness. To see how an XCOR suborbital flight would look like, see this video (recommended). Pending U.S. government approvals for the spacecraft, Space Experience Curacao hopes to start flights in January 2014.

Airlines and suborbital flights
For now KLM is the only airline associated with the Space Experience Curacao project. But Andrew Nelson, XCOR’s COO, said he expects other carriers to follow suit, either with Space Experience or with one of the dozens of other space tourism ventures in development worldwide. “It is only logical that, in the future, airlines are going to want to take advantage of services like these to enhance their frequent-flier programs.” Frequent fliers on Virgin Atlantic, meanwhile, can enter a prize draw to win a trip with Virgin Galactic if they have 2,000,000 Flying Club miles. On a critical note, however, with this kind of partnerships airlines are taking a risk in terms of their safety image, as suborbital space travel is just in its infancy. Furthermore, the impact on the environment to let one person travel into space no doubt will be substantial.

Commercial space ventures
Around 25 commercial space travel ventures have been started in the past decade. Half of them have been cancelled, but a dozen initiatives are currently under development. With the first paying passengers expected to take flight in late 2011 or 2012, market researchers have estimated that as many as 14,000 tourists will be heading into space each year by 2021, generating annual revenue of more than USD700 million. Leading entrepreneurs driving this recreational space race include Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com (Blue Origin). Major corporations such as EADS, the parent company of Airbus, are also investing in projects designed to shuttle non-austronauts adventurers into space, whereas a partnership between Boeing and Space Adventures plans to sell tickets to the International Space Station

Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic is by far the most advanced suborbital space travel initiative: Test flights on its six-passenger, two-pilot, Enterprise spaceship, began this year, and the company expects to launch its first commercial flight in late 2011 or 2012. The spaceship will be released from a mothership at a height of 9.5 miles to will continue its trip to about 110 km (68 miles) to the edge of what is considered outer space. Last month, Virgin Galactic also opened its first commercial spaceport ‘Spaceport America’ in the Mojave desert in New Mexico. The Spaceport is designed by Foster + Partners and can house up to five spacecraft and two guiding planes. Virgin Galactic says nearly 370 seats have been reserved with deposits of USD20,000, or 10 percent of the USD200,000 ticket price. Further Spaceports are planned in Dubai, Sweden and elsewhere. 

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