Reda AndersonI’m on assignment now for a Popular Science feature on Rocketplane-Kistler. I have Rocketplane’s Chuck Lauer to thank for that one–he just kept at me until he got me out for a visit to Rocketplane HQ in Oklahoma. And boy, am I glad he did.

As far as the press is concerned, Rocketplane has been something of a dark horse in the suborbital tourism market, overshadowed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and his contractor, Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites. But that’s about to change.

Virgin’s planning for a rollout of its SpaceShipTwo tourist vehicle in late 2007. Rutan himself tells me he doesn’t like to publicly commit to dates as a general rule because he doesn’t like to break promises. Seems prudent, given the delays common in the rocket business.

That said, Rocketplane is planning for test flights in early 2007, with the first revenue flight before the year is out. If they make it, they’ll beat Virgin to the punch and generate a lot of great press in the process. Judging from the quality of people I met in Oklahoma, I’d say they have an excellent shot at it.

Rocketplane Passenger Number One, Reda Anderson of Los Angeles, thinks so too. I spent a good bit of time with her in Oklahoma and I learned a lot from her about the customer perspective on the emerging commercial spaceflight industry. For example:

–Weightlessness isn’t an important part of the experience for Anderson. She figures she can take a parabolic flight like that offered by Zero-G Corp if she wants to go weightless. No, it’s the view of Earth from space she’s after, and so she doesn’t care whether she’s able to get up from her seat on her suborbital flight or not.

–Anderson is into “world-class events.” Like being one of the first on a suborbital passenger ship. And diving to the bottom of the ocean to see the Titanic wreck firsthand, which she did last summer. These kinds of pioneering experiences often come with primitive accommodations, and she doesn’t mind that a bit. She’s not after a resort experience on these trips. If she has to pee in the bush on a trip through the wilds of South Africa, why then, so much the better; it’s part of the appeal.

–Being able to quiz engineers at length about the choices they’re making during the design process, thumping on test hardware, asking pointed questions about the risks involved, all were important to Anderson in deciding to put her $20,000 deposit with Rocketplane. She made her money in real estate, not intangibles like stocks, and she likes to invest in things she can touch and see up close. As I found out myself, that’s Rocketplane all the way.

In fact, with SpaceShipTwo coming together behind locked doors, it looks to me like Rocketplane’s going to be where the action is in commercial spaceflight in the coming months. Watch them closely.

SpaceShipTwo development is closed to the press, but I don’t know whether prospective customers have access. I have a query into Virgin on that and I’ll let you know what I find out.

Did I mention Anderson’s 66 years old? She wanted me to guess her age, which I refused to do for fear of offending her. I needn’t have worried since I would have guessed mid-fifties.