February 16, 2006 1:59 PM PST

Consortium to make tour vehicles for space

Think of it as a motorized cable car to the stratosphere.

Space Adventures, the company that has sent tourists into space on Russian rockets, is teaming up with Prodea, an investment firm founded by the Ansari family, to develop a fleet of suborbital, reusable spacecraft for space tourism. The Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation will also participate, by supervising the development of the vehicles.

"Our goal in supporting the X Prize was to launch a new space industry through the introduction of commercial suborbital spaceflights," Anousheh Ansari, co-founder of Prodea, said in a statement. "We partnered with Space Adventures because they have proved that there is a market for space tourism by having been the first company to fly a private citizen to space, and remain today the only company to have actually taken tourists to space," she said. The Ansari family created the X Prize, which awarded $10 million to the SpaceShipOne team for successfully creating a private spacecraft.

A design for the suborbital space transportation system has already been put together by the Myasishchev Design Bureau, according to Space Adventures. The vehicle, called Explorer, will have the capacity to transport up to five people. While providing a safe flight, Explorer is also designed to optimize the experience of space travel, Space Adventures said.

In the past few years, the skies have become a new frontier for entrepreneurs and academics. Earlier this week, Carl Dietrich, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won the $30,000 Lemelson prize, in part for his ideas for a flying car. The car will be developed by his company, Terrafugia.

PayPal founder Elon Musk, meanwhile, has started SpaceX, a private company that hopes to launch rockets for satellite deployment, similar to the more heavily funded Sea Launch venture. Stanford University professors teach a course on do-it-yourself satellites.

And for backyard adventurers, Elwood "Woody" Norris created the AirScooter, a personal helicopter. Graduate students at Stanford University also have hatched a secretive start-up geared at recreational flyers, according to sources familiar with their plans.

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