Twelve rich Asians, possibly including some from Hong Kong, will be among the first people to travel to space in mid-2015 - but only for five to six minutes.
The Space Expedition Corporation (SXC), based in the Netherlands, has set up an office in Hong Kong in an effort to use the city to explore business in Asia and China. "In a few years, Asia and China … will make up about 30 to 35 per cent of our total sales. In this coming year, we expect to sell 50 to 80 tickets in China," SXC chief executive Michiel Mol said yesterday.
The company will send its first batch of 100 "astronaut" customers from around the world into space with its two-seater Lynx Mark II spacecraft in mid-2015. Twelve places are reserved for the Asian market.
The Asian price to be one of the first 100 "astronauts" is HK$1.68 million, including return flights to and from the spaceport on the Caribbean island of Curacao and having their names engraved on a monument at the spaceport. About 250 people, many from Western Europe, have already signed up, including Victoria's Secret supermodel Doutzen Kroes.
But not all will actually travel into space - defined as at least 100 kilometres from the earth's surface. Some have opted for the cheaper "near space" programme in which they will fly to 60 kilometres above sea level and pay a mere HK$735,000.
Those who want to travel into real space but baulk at the price will be able to make the 100-kilometre ascent for HK$775,000, provided they can wait until the first 100 have made the journey.
The whole trip will last about an hour. About a minute after takeoff, the spacecraft will reach supersonic speed and three minutes later will enter space.
There, the engines will be cut and the vessel will "float" for five to six minutes before it begins its slower return to earth.
Alex Tang, chief executive of SXC Asia, said this would be long enough. "It's not like there will be big changes to the earth after five or 20 minutes. What you see in five or 10 minutes is exactly the same … and there is no toilet inside [the spacecraft]," he said.
No one from China has signed up yet because the government of the United States - where the spacecraft were developed - initially banned SXC from selling tickets to Chinese and people in 26 other countries.
Tang said the ban, lifted at the beginning of this year, was imposed because the US government wanted to protect its space technology from being exposed to other countries.
People who are taller than 2.15 metres, heavier than 125 kilograms or who have heart problems cannot join the programme. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is also in the race to carry people into space. Its space vehicle, the SpaceShipTwo, recently went through flight tests and the company expects it to make a space test flight by this year.
Number of "astronauts": two (including pilot)
Length of trip: about one hour
Actual time in space: up to six minutes
Maximum altitude: 103 kilometres above sea level
Maximum speed: 3,552km/h
Length of spacecraft: 8.51m
Height of spacecraft: 2.2m
Wingspan of spacecraft: 7.3m
Expected sales from Asia and China: up to 35 per cent
Price to be one of the first "astronauts": HK$1.68 million
Price to follow in their footsteps: HK$775,000