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Luxuries in space

In the wake of the X Prize Cup, one reader wrote in to ask why anyone would pay $200,000 for a quick space trip on a rocket plane. "I assume it means much quicker travel time coast to coast, but your story never mentioned anything about why this is the next step in aviation evolution," said Cutter Garcia of Los Angeles.

Point-to-point travel is definitely on the minds of spaceship developers - but before they get to that point, all they can offer are up-and-down sightseeing trips. At least at first, rocketeers will be banking on a luxury market ... the kind of people who are willing to pay $95,000 to go on a North Pole expedition, or buy a cell phone for $20,000. So who better to design the interior of the spaceship than Frank Nuovo, the man behind that $20,000 cell phone?

That's exactly what Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Global is doing for its XP rocket plane: Although the final design isn't yet set, Nuovo's rough outline shows swoopy mesh seats (like Herman Miller's Aeron chairs), wide windows, personalized video displays and hush-hush technologies that the company declines to talk about for fear of tipping off its competition at Virgin Galactic.

"I like to work with technology that's supported at the highest level of experience, so effectively it becomes luxury technology," Nuovo told me last weekend at the X Prize Cup in New Mexico.

Nuovo, who packs a titanium Vertu phone for voice as well as a palm-sized PDA for e-mail, said his work with Rocketplane Global is a "passion project" - and he's expecting a future spaceflight aboard the XP as part of his payoff.

"You're working on an extraordinary experience, and that extraordinary experience is what I'm trying to capture in my career going forward," Nuovo said. "How can you turn it down?"

Although Rocketplane Global has redesigned its rocket-jet hybrid to be somewhat larger than the Learjet template that the designers started out with, the interior layout is still similar to that of a six-seat private jet. Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo design concept may provide empty space for floating around, but that's not the way Rocketplane Global's top pilot, former NASA astronaut, intends to run his ship.

"From a safety perspective, I'm not letting anybody out of their seat," Herrington, who is vice president for flight operations as well as chief test pilot, told reporters at the X Prize Cup. At least in the beginning, the suborbital passengers' safety harnesses will loosen up, and they'll be able to get that weightless feeling at the top of their ride. They won't be allowed to float free around the cabin, however.

That may change after the XP goes through its shakedown period, Herrington acknowledges. Rocketplane Global is considering a trick that's long been familiar to minivan owners: that is, taking out the middle two seats and giving some extra zero-G room for the backseat passengers. Of course, the company would charge a premium for that experience.

Rocketplane's rationale is that if you're really interested in weightless acrobatics, you're better off doing that on a zero-G airplane flight. The company intends to include that kind of flying time - as well as other spacey experiences such as altitude-chamber sessions or centrifuge rides - during a four-day preflight training program.

The preflight training should also include a generous helping of other luxury experiences, according to Olle Norberg, head of the Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, Sweden. The Swedish center is angling to become Virgin Galactic's first spaceport in Europe.

"It's not enough to just provide the runway and the fueling facilities," Norberg told me. "You have to really provide the full experience, not only for the passengers but also for the family and the friends."

For Norberg, the full experience would include a stay in Kiruna's swanky Icehotel, and perhaps outings to see auroral light shows, wildlife and other winter delights. "We are mainly focusing on the winter experience," he said. The Swedish spaceport had hoped to offer zero-G flights as well, but Norberg said that part of the plan "unfortunately crashed" due to high insurance costs.

Rocketplane's home base in Burns Flat, Okla., has a ways to go to match the Icehotel - but eventually, the company will have to offer ground-based luxuries to supplement the spaceflight. Virgin Galactic is already thinking about those luxury options as it lays out its plans for Spaceport America in New Mexico, said Alex Tai, the company's chief operating officer.

"The experience has to be seamless from beginning to end," Tai told me. Future passengers should have enough to keep them busy for a visit ranging from three days to a couple of weeks, he said.

"It's really up to New Mexico to step up and say, 'OK, these are the other things you'll want to do while you're here,'" Tai said. That would certainly include a resort experience, and either Virgin Galactic's external partners or the Virgin Group's travel subsidiaries could fill the bill there.

I have to admit that it was hard to think about luxury experiences as I watched Armadillo Aerospace go about their grimy rocket business at the X Prize Cup - but perhaps people thought the same thing as they watched the Queen Mary (and, um, the Titanic) being built - or as the Wright brothers struggled with their first airplanes. Eventually, that tinkering brought us luxurious cruises and (at least for a time) Concorde flights.

Perhaps the luxury market is one small step toward a wider-based technological leap - the same kind of leap we saw with the spread of affordable air and sea travel, consumer electronics and, yes, cell phones. At least that's what I'm hoping. To me, $200,000 still sounds like a lot of money for a ride on a rocket plane - even a luxurious one.

For further reflections on the hits and misses of the X Prize Cup, check out these links: