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Space tourism industry to run 'like fast-food franchises'

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Space pioneer Burt Rutan foresees space tourism companies running like a fast-food franchises, with his company licensing spacecraft to tour operators. But he says he may have trouble cutting through federal regulations to get there.

His company, Scaled Composites, built SpaceShipOne, the rocket plane that won the Ansari X Prize for private space flight in 2004. Scaled Composites has already signed a deal to build five spaceships for Virgin Galactic - a division of the Virgin Group.

Rutan declined to give detailed information about his future business plans before the US House Committee on Science's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics on Wednesday. But he did say he sees it running like a Wendy's fast-food franchise, with his company implementing strict rules for tour operators about safety and operations. "We won't sell spaceships to space lines that aren't safe to fly," he says.

Unlike SpaceShipOne, the next generation of Scaled Composite spaceships will have large cabins and big windows. Passengers will be able to float around the cabin during the four to five minutes of weightlessness. The trips will be a reasonably straightforward up and down voyage: Rutan says his company has not made the technological breakthroughs necessary for safe and affordable orbital trips as yet.

In the first year of operation, Rutan estimates that 500 people could fly to the fringe of space, about 100 kilometres. By the twelfth year, that number could reach 100,000, he says.

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