MELBOURNE, Fla. -- Andrew Nelson envisions a time in the not-too-distant future when thrill-seekers stream to Florida to experience a few minutes of weightlessness on one of his vehicles - and pay $95,000 for the opportunity.
And local tourism officials hope that space-bound visitors will be a boon for hotels, restaurants and shops firmly attached to Planet Earth.
Nelson is chief operating office of XCOR Aerospace, and his recent presentation at a meeting of the Brevard County, Fla., Tourist Development Council excited local hospitality industry officials.
XCOR is one of a handful of companies making serious inroads into the space tourism industry, which many see as having potential to be the Next Big Thing.
A recent study by The Tauri Group on the still-nascent suborbital space industry projected $600 million worth of demand in the next 10 years, saying individuals eager for an out-of-this-world experience would be the primary buyers. Governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations were expected to make up the rest.
Prices can be steep.
Space Adventures, a space-tourism company based in Virginia that focuses on orbital flights, brokers trips with the Russian Federal Space Agency to the International Space Station at costs that reportedly range from $20 million to $35 million a seat. World-renowned soprano Sarah Brightman became the latest to sign up this fall. The ticket price was undisclosed, but it would involve six months of training.
Nelson's suborbital trips are less elaborate - and more economical. But still they qualify as a luxury purchase. For $95,000, customers would experience a 30-minute suborbital trip into space on one of XCOR's two-person Lynx rocket-powered reusable space planes. Those vehicles can take off and land horizontally like a plane from the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center. The trip includes six or seven minutes of weightlessness. The price includes three to four days of training and medical screening.
Nelson said his company already has pre-sold about 250 such flights, which are expected to start next year.
"I think that this provides a fabulous opportunity. It's a real astronaut experience," Nelson said.
Robert Salonen, director of business development for the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast, said there are many people interested in going into space if they can afford the experience.
"Space tourism is more than thinking: 'Well, I'm going to buy a ticket to go to the moon,'" Salonen told the Tourist Development Council.
XCOR and other companies give "very high-wealth individuals the spaceflight experience. Climb Mount Everest or go into space. These are the choices a lot of these folks are making," Salonen said. "The market is there, and it's substantial, and it can sustain multiple providers."
Nelson is not worried about the competition. He compares it to a roller-coaster fan visiting various theme parks.
"If you ride roller coasters, do you just ride one roller coaster?" Nelson said. "No. You ride them all."
Nelson also sees a market for watching the takeoffs and landings of XCOR vehicles from the Shuttle Landing Facility, perhaps as many as four times a day.
"Guest what?" Nelson said. "You go see a real rocket launch at 8 o'clock, 10 o'clock, 12 o'clock and 2 o'clock. That's exciting. And you're not sitting 3 to 4 miles away, You're sitting within 500 feet ... feeling the pulse of the rocket as it takes off."
He also hopes to work out details of providing live video feeds of the flights from inside the cockpit to spectators on the ground.
A major competitor of XCOR, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, is basing its operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company says the first commercial flights on its SpaceShipTwo, which is designed to carry two pilots and six passengers paying $200,000 per seat, are possible by 2014.
The competition is stiff for attracting space tourists, with spaceports approved or proposed in more than a dozen states as well as abroad, according to the EDC's Salonen.
The question, Salonen said, is: "Where are these high-wealth individuals going to go? Are they going to choose New Mexico? Are they going to choose Abu Dhabi? Or are they going to come here for their experience."
In the Space Coast's favor is its human spaceflight legacy, combined with the ongoing expansion of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. A $100 million exhibit there featuring the retired shuttle orbiter Atlantis is scheduled to open in July.
If the XCOR flights take off from Kennedy Space Center, it will bring flight participants and their families to the area for multiple-day stays.
Nelson said the suborbital reusable vehicle market could receive "viral growth" if the public accepts that going into space to experience weightlessness is safe.
"The first big breakthrough in flight was the Wright Brothers just over a hundred years ago, and it changed the world as we know it," Nelson said. "And what we hope to do in the next few years in Brevard County we hope will be just as impactful. The early adopters who are paying $95,000 for these flight are paving the way for bigger and better things for the man on the street."
Dave Berman, Florida Today