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The next frontier of travel? If Richard Branson and others like him have their way, the answer is outer space. The Virgin Atlantic CEO marked a major milestone in space tourism last Monday with the first supersonic test flight of Virgin Galactic, a passenger spacecraft aiming to become the world’s first commercial “spaceline” by 2014.

But are travellers really interested in going to space?

According to a 2008 ABC News poll on the topic, although 65% of respondents believed that in the years ahead ordinary people will travel to outer space, the median price that they were willing to pay was just $2,000 – a far cry from the $200,000 ticket Virgin Galactic ticket.

However, in a 2006 survey by Spaceport Associates and Incredible Adventures, two US companies pioneering space tourism, if cost were not an issue nearly two-thirds of respondents would go on a “round-the-moon adventure”. More than 70% surveyed would spend two weeks or less on a suborbital tourism flight and 88% were interested in spacewalking.

“These trips are the beginning of what could be a lucrative 21st-century industry,” wrote Kevin Bonsor on science website howstuffworks.com, noting that several space tourism companies have begun building suborbital vehicles for commercial space travel. “These companies have invested millions, believing that space tourism industry is on the verge of taking off.”

Among them are Xcor Aerospace Inc, which hopes to join Virgin Galactic in the space tourism business. Private company SpaceX is developing its own rocket family, Falcon, capable of sending seven people to any space station. Space Adventures Ltd is working on a circumlunar mission to the moon (price per passenger is currently $100 million). Even commercial airliner Boeing is getting in on the venture, building a spacecraft to transport passengers to the International Space Station, a habitable satellite low in Earth’s orbit where scientists from around the world live, work and research.

As for Virgin Galactic’s commercial space tourism project, some 529 would-be space travellers (including such celebrities as American actor Ashton Kutcher) have already signed up for the two-hour, $200,000-a-seat experience.

But until those flights become financially attainable for more tourists, it’s unlikely that space travel will rival air travel.

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