So two spaceship companies plan to build suborbital tourist ships in the coming year. A Virgin Atlantic Airways offshoot, Virgin Galactic, and Oklahoma startup Rocketplane Ltd. both plan to offer tourist flights to space for about $200,000.

Okay, so I have 200 gs burning a hole in my pocket and I want to go to space. Who do I go with? Well, let me break it down with some info I’ve gathered in interviews with people from both companies:

Virgin Galatic
Ticket price: $200,000
Launch date: first tourist flights scheduled for 2008

Ticket price: $192,000
Launch date: first tourist flights scheduled for 2007

At first glance, looks like Rocketplane will get me there sooner for less money. Cool. Maybe I should go with them. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Virgin Galactic
Personnel: executives, pilots, and other folks drawn from Virgin Atlantic Airways, a successful airline for 21 years
Technology: brand-new spaceships built by Scaled Composites, the company that sent the first (and so far the only) privately funded astronauts into space

Personnel: head engineer is a 30-year veteran of Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works division, known for its innovative approach to aerospace design; chief test pilot is a just-retired NASA astronaut; other personnel drawn from various aerospace businesses
Technology: a used Learjet gutted and fitted with a rocket engine

[insert record scratch here]

Waitasec. A used Learjet? Well, actually just the fuselage and engines, according to that Skunk Works veteran, David Urie. Why? Because it’s cheaper than designing a new fuselage from scratch.

The design calls for flying the ship to 20,000 feet on the jets, then lighting the rocket to get to space. It’s theoretically possible, according to my contact at MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory, Dr. Raymond Sedwick. But it’s never been done.

And there’s the rub. These guys say they’ll fly paying passengers–and not just any paying passengers, but ones able to blow almost a quarter of a million dollars on a what amounts to a fabulously expensive roller coaster ride–in an experimental spacecraft built around a used business jet. Because its cheaper.

And there’s more, unfortunately. Turns out the rocket engine is going to be preowned as well, of the highly explosive liquid fuel variety. That’s because the built-from-scratch engine they were going to use blew up on the test stand. And something for me to follow up on: a tipster tells me that Rocketplane hasn’t approached the FAA about certifying their hot-rodded Learjet–surely a requirement for following through with their business plan.

Which leads me to wonder: just how serious is this company about following through with its business plan? Better find out before you give them any money.

At the very least, arrange for a tour of their hangar and see what they’re working with over there. And let me know what you find out; they wouldn’t send me any photographs of the work they say is in progress.

In the meantime, I’m putting my money on Virgin Galactic.

Update on 11/14/05
Be sure to hit these two posts for corrections and clarification:

Rocketplane Update