Lift off from Sweden for space tourists

Space tourists could soon be heading into orbit from Swedish soil under plans announced on Wednesday.

British company Virgin Galactic, headed by flamboyant entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, plans to start commercial flights in 2008 and wants to make the Esrange launch pad in Kiruna one of its bases.

“They are very interested in the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights during the flights,” said Olle Norberg, general manager of Esrange.

Two representatives of Virgin Galactic visited Kiruna, in the far north of Sweden, in March, and met Norberg and representatives of air traffic control operators LFV.

The proximity of the base to the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi has added to Virgin Galactic’s interest in the area.

LFV, the Swedish Space Corporation and the Ice Hotel are now putting together a consortium, Kiruna Spaceport, which will cooperate over space tourism, Norberg says.

Virgin Galactic plans to start commercial space flights in 2008 from New Mexico. Tickets will cost $200,000, for which passengers will get to experience five minutes of weightlessness, 120 miles above the earth.

Passengers will fly on specially-built planes built by a company in California, says Norberg. The planes take off from a normal runway. When they reach an altitude of 15 kilometres, a rocket booster propels the six passengers into space. The plane then lands like a glider, if everything has gone according to plan.

The planes are planned to take off from Kiruna Airport. Esrange’s role is to service the craft and charge the rocket motor after every flight.

“This is the same thing we do with the sounding rockets that are launched from Esrange,” says Norberg. He believes that the first space tourist flights from Kiruna will take off in 2010 or 2011.

It took us a while to take this in, but now we’re working to make it a reality,” he says.

TT/The Local