It'll be out of this world for rich mainlanders

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 September, 2011, 12:00am


With the rapid increase in Chinese travellers seeing the world, the mainland has the potential to become a major source of tourists rocketing to space.

The key, however, is when certain US restrictions that bar mainland tourists from joining the ranks of would-be astronauts are relaxed.

'China will be a big market,' says Stephen Attenborough, the commercial director at Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which has established a spaceport in New Mexico in the United States.

Since 2005, the company has made it possible for hundreds of well-heeled tourists from around the world to book their place on aircraft that will make regular trips to suborbital space. The current ticket price is US$200,000, with refundable deposits starting at US$20,000.

The company has 450 booked passengers so far - mostly from the US - and taken about US$60 million in deposits.

'We have 47 markets represented, including from Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan,' Attenborough said. 'Mainland China is one of the few markets we don't sell to at the moment.'

The reason is 'US export controls that affect selling [aircraft ticket] reservations to non-US citizens', he said. 'We are obviously respectful of the regulatory environment in the US, so we've taken the decision not to sell tickets to mainland people.'

Defence analyst Wendell Minnick said the restriction could be related to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations - a set of US government rules that control the export and import of defence-related articles, services and technologies.

Virgin Galactic is also regulated by the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which is part of the US Federal Aviation Administration. This office aims to ensure public health and safety of US commercial space launch and re-entry activities, while protecting national security and foreign policy interests.

According to an FAA report on the US commercial air transport sector, published in January, Virgin Galactic is expected to begin commercial operations after it has secured deposits from 500 people.

A seven-phase test flight programme for Virgin's SpaceShipTwo started in October 2009. The aircraft, which is about 18 metres long, is like an air-launched glider with a rocket motor that takes it from the carrier on its sub-orbital voyage. Among those who have booked are Hong Kong socialite Perveen Crawford, X-Men film director Bryan Singer, actress Victoria Principal and former Formula One racing champion Niki Lauda.


The altitude Virgin's SpaceShipTwo is designed to reach on its journey. The spacecraft will carry six customers per flight