June 30, 2006 12:55 PM PDT

Rocket shoots science, souvenirs into space

A rocket with a cargo of school science experiments and collector's items is scheduled to launch from New Mexico this summer and become a milestone in a burgeoning era of space tourism.

Up Aerospace, a commercial space company, plans to launch its first scheduled flight into orbit on Aug. 14 from New Mexico's Spaceport, a new take-off point for spacecraft, the company said Friday.

The rocket, called SpaceLoft XL, will reach the international definition of space at 62 miles above earth in about 90 seconds, and travel for another 30 minutes before landing. The rocket can carry up to 110 pounds of cargo, which will range from people's personal items, such as business cards or rings, to scientific experiments from high schools and universities around the country.

"We're like an airline, but instead of flying horizontally, we fly up and back. We don't have seats; we have payload sections," said Eric Knight, CEO of Up Aerospace, based in Hartford, Conn.

The flight marks a continued flurry of activity in commercial space travel. Entrepreneurs including Virgin CEO Richard Branson and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos are building space vehicles for eventual human tourism in orbit. Space Adventures, a travel agency for private trips to the International Space Station, has continued to book multimillion-dollar vacations out of this world.

Meanwhile, the X Prize Foundation, which has scheduled an event for October, will feature various space tourism exhibits and challenges, including NASA's contest for the private industry to build a next-generation spacecraft for lunar travel.

Up Aerospace has teamed up with New Mexico's Economic Development Department to arrange scheduled flights at the Spaceport, whose first flight will also be on Aug. 14.

"This launch will put New Mexico's Spaceport on the map, and will get us one step further toward getting our FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) license," said Rick Homans, secretary of the New Mexico Economic Development Department.

The Aug. 14 flight will carry scientific experiments from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Brown University, University of Hartford, Central Connecticut State University and New Mexico State University. Also, 40 experiments created by U.S. high school students will be onboard the rocket in partnership with the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology and the National Aerospace Leadership Initiative.

Commercial companies marketing space collector's items will send personal items that have traveled on the rockets. A couple of European companies have emerged to sell space aboard the ship to fly personal items from individuals willing to pay for their belongings to make the journey. Up Aerospace said payload space can cost as low as a few hundred dollars and as much as a few thousand dollars.

The rocket is a solid fuel rocket that weighs 800 pounds and can accelerate to five times the speed of sound, or nearly 3,400 miles per hour, in 13.5 seconds. Up Aerospace plans to eventually offer 30 scheduled flights per year, according to Knight.

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