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Curacao takes another step toward space tourism

XCOR Aerospace

XCOR Aerospace's Lynx rocket plane soars above Earth in this artist's concept.

XCOR Aerospace and Space Expedition Curacao announced today that they're going forward with a deal worth more than $10 million to start offering rocket plane rides beyond the edge of space from the Caribbean island starting in 2014.

The wet-lease arrangement follows up on an agreement in principle reached a year ago. Under this type of contract, the Curacao venture would have XCOR's Lynx rocket plane available for its use, but XCOR would be in charge of the ground operations and provide the pilot.

California-based XCOR's development plan calls for beginning flight testing about a year from now, using a prototype version of the Lynx that's built for flights up to an altitude of 38.5 miles (62 kilometers). By the time the Curacao deal kicks in, XCOR aims to have one or two "Mark II" production models ready to fly to altitudes in excess of 62.5 miles (100 kilometers), which is the internationally recognized boundary of outer space.

The rocket-powered Lynx is designed to seat a pilot and a single passenger side-by-side, with windows all around the front and top to provide a panoramic view of the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space. The fliers would get a feeling of weightness for four minutes or so, and feel a maximum acceleration of 4 G's.

The Lynx is being offered as a tourist plane as well as a platform for suborbital space experiments

Space Expedition Curacao's deal would involve the use of XCOR's second Mark II model, with the option to use XCOR's first Mark II for up to three months a year. That  provision covers the possibility that XCOR's production schedule encounters delays, as well as the possibility that Curacao will need more flight capacity or need to start tourist flights early, said Andrew Nelson, XCOR Aerospace's chief operating officer.

The deal is still dependent on federal approval for XCOR's export licensing arrangements, but the Curacao venture has already made an initial payment to XCOR. “Now that the ink is dry and the check has cleared we can proceed at full pace to begin operations in Curacao in 2014,” XCOR's chief executive officer, Jeff Greason, said today in a news release.

The news release characterized the deal as an "eight-figure" contract, meaning it's worth at least $10 million, but the precise value was not disclosed.

The going rate for rides on the Lynx is $95,000. Space Expedition Curacao co-founder Michiel Mol said his venture "has signed up 35 spaceflight participants since the beginning of April, with a goal to sell 50 before the holiday season." Mol said the customers included Victoria's Secret model Doutzen Kroes; San Francisco Giants batting coach (and Curacao native) Hensley Muelens; and Armin van Buuren, host of an internationally broadcast radio show titled "A State of Trance."

Other flights are to be purchased by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines for frequent-flier awards, educational incentives and vacation packages. The flight operation would be based at Curacao International Airport.

"We've been working hard on the infrastructure end of things as well," said Ben Droste, president and co-founder of Space Expedition Curacao. "Our relationship with Curacao Airport Holdings continues to be strong as they ready the facilities necessary to make this vision a reality. Things are now moving at an accelerated pace."

The commercial space industry is also advancing on other fronts, in Washington and California:

Sierra Nevada Corp.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is in line to receive another $25.6 million for reaching four optional milestones in the development of its Dream Chaser space plane, shown in this artist's conception. The Boeing Co. could be eligible for another $20.6 million.

• NASA today unveiled its plan for the next step toward procuring commercial space transport services to carry astronauts to the International Space Station sometime around the middle of the decade. The draft request for proposals outlines a contract that would be awarded to multiple companies, to provide a complete end-to-end design for transportation services. The space agency would award an Integrated Design Contract valued at up to $1.61 billion and running from July 2012 through April 2014.

In a news release, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the newly released acquisition strategy serves as "further evidence we are committed to fully implementing our plan — as laid out in the Authorization Act — to outsource our space station transportation so NASA can focus its energy and resources on deep space exploration." 

The exact amount of money available for commercial crew development would be dependent on congressional appropriations, which are still in flux for fiscal 2012 and beyond.

NASA also said it was amending its existing agreements with two companies to fund optional milestones for the development of crew-capable vehicles. Sierra Nevada Corp. would be eligible for an additional $25.6 million if four optional milestones are reached, bringing the potential payout to $105.6 million. The Boeing Co., which was awarded up to $92.3 million this spring for design work on its CST-100 crew vehicle, could get another $20.6 million if it meets three optional milestones.

Mark Greenberg

More than 80 employees of The Spaceship Company gather for a group photo with the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft at the new Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

• The Spaceship Company, a joint venture involving Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, today announced the opening of a 68,000-square-foot facility in Mojave, Calif., for  producing SpaceShipTwo rocket planes and WhiteKnightTwo carrier planes. The facility — known as the Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar, or FAITH — will be where the vehicles are completed and tested prior to delivery to customers. The first customer is Virgin Galactic itself. Virgin Galactic is working its way toward powered SpaceShipTwo tests that would eventually cross the 100-kilometer space fontier. Virgin's billionaire founder, Richard Branson, said last week that the effort "on track for a launch within 12 months."

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