The lunch of a Soyuz FG rocket, which has carried previous Space Adventure flights. -- NASA photo

Eat your heart out, Richard Branson. Virgin Galatic has some serious competition in the space tourism sector -- Boeing says it and its partner Space Adventures, Ltd. will be offering tourist-class seats from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station and beyond by 2015.

Of course, knowing commercial air travel, it's possible flights will leave a bit later than that, or perhaps wind up somewhere else entirely. No word on yet on whether food will cost extra, or for that matter, whether there'll be anything beyond Tang and pretzels.

All of this plays into the plans of the Obama Administration, which would like for the National Aeronautrics and Space Administration (NASA) to get serious about building commercial space travel into something other than science fiction.

Taking a page from the commercial airline industry, NASA is basically jamming a few more seats into the Boeing Crew Space Transportation-100 (CST-100) spacecraft, so that it can carry four space station crew members and three tourists on each flight.

"By combining our talents, we can better offer safe, affordable transportation to commercial spaceflight customers," said Brewster Shaw, vice president and general manager of Boeing's Space Exploration division. "To date, all commercial flights for private spaceflight participants to the ISS have been contracted by Space Adventures. If NASA and the international partners continue to accommodate commercial spaceflight participants on ISS, this agreement will be in concert with the NASA administrator's stated intent to promote space commerce in low Earth orbit."

Space Adventures, headquartered in Vienna, Va., has flown seven spaceflight participants on eight missions to the space station so far. It's not exactly the Washington-New York Shuttle but it's more than the competition, Sir Richard's Virgin Galactic.

On the other hand, while Boeing and its partners are issuing press releases and thinking up new acronyms, Virgin Galactic is already accepting reservations for flights on its VSS Enterprise, which made its first crewed flight July 15. Tickets are $200,000 but only a $20,000 deposit is required.

photo The VSS Enterprise and its mothership. -- VSS Photo

Passenger manifest


And who might go on such a trip?

The Boeing/NASA/Space Adventures triumvirate puts it like this: "Potential customers for excess seating capacity include private individuals, companies, non-governmental organizations, and U.S. federal agencies other than NASA. Boeing plans to use the CST-100 to provide crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) and future commercial LEO platforms.

Intelligence operatives and junketeering politicians, in other words.

Virgin makes no presumptions about its passengers and instead portrays the experience as, well, a dream: "As you hurtle through the edges of the atmosphere, the large windows show the cobalt blue sky turning to mauve and indigo and finally to black. You're on a high; this is really happening, you're loving it and you're coping well."

"Later that evening, sitting with your astronaut wings, you know that life will never quite be the same again," purrs Virgin. Hard to argue with that.