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Dude, where's my spaceship?

When it comes to private spaceflight, the future always seems to be two years away. In 1997, suborbital space trips were due to start in 1999. In 2005, it was 2007. Now 2009 (or maybe 2010) is the start date for commercial space tours. As space entrepreneurs converge on Dallas for the annual International Space Development Conference, here are the latest timetables offered by four players in the suborbital space tourism game:

• Virgin Galactic leads the list of suborbital space favorites, for a couple of reasons: On the technical side, the venture draws upon the expertise of the only folks to actually put a privately developed craft into outer space: California-based Scaled Composites, led by aerospace iconoclast Burt Rutan. On the financial and marketing side, Virgin is the progeny of Sir Richard Branson - a British billionaire with flair who was recently the subject of a New Yorker profile.

Although Rutan likes to work behind closed doors, Branson and his team have released a lot of information about their timetable: SpaceShipTwo is to be rolled out late this year, go into flight testing next year and begin commercial service in late 2009. First flights would be from California's Mojave Spaceport, with the main operation eventually relocating to New Mexico's Spaceport America.

That's the plan, anyway. Schedules have been known to slip, and last month, Virgin Galactic's Stephen Attenborough told me that "Burt's not going to hand this vehicle over to us until he would be happy to fly his children in it."

In the meantime, at least three other companies are angling to beat Virgin Galactic to the marketplace - even though they don't have quite as much clout as Branson and Rutan. In alphabetical order, they are:

• Benson Space Co.: Eight months ago, start-up veteran Jim Benson split off from SpaceDev, the company he himself founded back in 1997, and set up a new company to market suborbital trips on a spaceship built by his old company. Since then, Benson has been heavily involved in raising capital as well as reviewing the Dream Chaser design - which is based on a lifting-body concept pioneered in the 1980s.

SpaceDev has now completed that design review, which raised a few red flags. As a result, Benson's team is rethinking elements of the Dream Chaser concept. "We went back to the drawing board and looked at improvements since then," he told me.

For now, Benson is setting aside his long-term vision of orbital flight.

"We've decided that we really need to focus on the business at hand, and that's suborbital," he said. "We believe that we can still be first to market and provide the safest and best experience ... If we're successful at that, which we firmly believe we will be, then that success will give us the credit and the financing to look at orbital spaceflight when appropriate. I guess you could say we're simplifying the design and we're simplifying the business plan."

Benson said that, "as of today, we're still on schedule to meet our early 2009 commercial spaceflight initiation." He's still recruiting investors, and he hasn't yet decided where the spaceship will be launched from.

"We really want to nail down the financing and get started on the fabrication of the vehicle, and at that point, we'll still have a year and a half or maybe two years before we have to have a spaceport," Benson said.

It's a safe bet that he'll have more to announce at the Dallas conference this week.

• PlanetSpace: Indian-American entrepreneur Chirinjeev Kathuria joined forces with Canadian rocketeer Geoff Sheerin two years ago to build a suborbital spaceship based on the World War II-era V-2 design. Both partners had been involved previously in spaceflight ventures that fell short - Kathuria as a backer of MirCorp, the company that tried to keep Russia's Mir space station afloat, and Sheerin as an entrant in the space race for the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

If their venture had followed its planned trajectory, they would be flying tourists into space by now. But they've changed direction, and are now setting their sights on a spaceflight system that is something of a departure from the V-2 design - comprising a rocket that looks more like Russia's Soyuz and a space glider called the Silver Dart.

PlanetSpace's current plan calls for suborbital space flights to begin in mid-2009, with operations based at Rickenbacker International Airport in Columbus, Ohio. A few months ago, the state of Ohio offered PlanetSpace a package of financial incentives, and Kathuria said he expected a deal to be concluded by mid-July.

PlanetSpace is also working with NASA to develop an orbital-capable version of its Nova rocket that could be used with the Silver Dart to launch cargo to the international space station. Although NASA is not providing funding for PlanetSpace's effort, the schedule calls for an orbital demonstration flight by December 2009. Kathuria said that the effort was on track, and that PlanetSpace would soon follow up on an agreement with Nova Scotia by selecting an orbital launch site there.

But what about the money? Kathuria, who has run successful businesses in the telecommunications and medical-equipment industries, said he expected the company to draw upon financial backing to the tune of about $130 million. He declined to name the backers, but he did list the categories of investment. The sum would include roughly $30 million from PlanetSpace shareholders, $50 million in financing from Canadian and U.S. governmental entities, and a $50 million combination of equity and debt that "we're in the process of finalizing," he said..

"It's sufficient to complete the cargo demonstration and complete the suborbital vehicle," Kathuria said.

• Rocketplane Kistler: The Oklahoma-based company is working on two tracks: a suborbital spaceship called the Rocketplane XP, which is essentially a commercial jet that has been modified to have a rocket engine as well for the ascent to space; and an orbital launch vehicle called the Kistler K-1, which is being groomed for possible service as a carrier of cargo and crew to the space station.

At one time, Rocketplane was aiming to start suborbital passenger service this year. However, Chuck Lauer, the company's vice president of business development, says the current plan is for the Rocketplane XP will begin test flights in 2009. Tests of the vehicle's engine are scheduled for this summer. "That'll probably be the big dramatic TV moment of the summer," he told me.

Eventually, the plan calls for a "distributed fleet" of the XP rocket-jet hybrids to fly from spaceports not only in Oklahoma, but on Japan's Hokkaido Island and other locations, he said. That variety of locales will give repeat customers something different to look at.

Meanwhile, NASA has agreed to give Rocketplane Kistler as much as $207 million through 2010 for the development of the K-1 - with an orbital demonstration flight due late next year. The K-1 could enter commercial service in the 2010-2011 time frame.

These four companies have been the most forthcoming about their plans for suborbital tourist flights, at prices ranging from $150,000 to $300,000 per seat. But there are plenty of other companies in the commercial space race: Armadillo Aerospace, Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, Da Vinci Project / DreamSpace, Interorbital SystemsSpace AdventuresSpaceX, Starchaser Industries, t/Space and XCOR Aerospace, to name just a few.

T/Space, also known as Transformational Space, is among the companies focusing on piloted orbital spaceflight in hopes of winning NASA contracts for cargo and crew transport to the space station after the shuttles are retired in 2010. "We are hoping to do our demonstration flight at the end of 2010," David Gump, t/Space's president, told me today.

Like most other space ventures, t/Space is having to deal with the challenges of raising funds as well as creating a new spaceflight system. And like most other space entrepreneurs, Gump knows more than he's telling.

"There are good things happening that we can't talk about at the moment," he said. Maybe we'll hear more in the hallways at the Dallas conference.

For a detailed rundown on most of the commercial spaceflight ventures out there, check out our "New Space Race" section - and especially our guide to the new space landscape. And for updates, check back here for reports from the International Space Development Conference and beyond.

Update for 10:30 a.m. ET May 24: Lauer's comments were added to correct and expand what I had written about Rocketplane Kistler.