MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
And I'm Andrea Seabrook.
Half a dozen start-up companies are competing to be the first to fly paying passengers to the edge of space on a regular basis. Some of the better-known players are building futuristic-looking spacecraft.
Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports one Oklahoma company is taking a different approach. It's modifying an old plane and an uneven older spaceport.
(Soundbite of a plane's fuselage)
FRANK MORRIS: Rocketplane Incorporated makes its headquarters here, in a squat-brown building near working oil wells pressed in against Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. But Rocketplane XP program manager Dave Faulkner says the company has lofty ambitions.
Mr. DAVE FAULKNER (XP Program Manager, Rocketplane Incorporated): Well, Rocketplane has a vision of being the leading space transportation provider in the world.
MORRIS: For that of course, you need a spacecraft, and Faulkner grins wide-eyed when he talks about the one he's designed. A technical drawing of the Rocketplane XP hangs on his office wall. It looks like a business jet, which it used to be. It's a 1960s era Leer jet fuselage fitted with short swept-back wings and a rocket engine. Faulkner says the old Leer jet airframe can handle the speed and pressure with a few modifications.
The guy on the hook to actually fly this craft is former NASA astronaut John Herrington. He says using existing parts makes sense.
Mr. JOHN HERRINGTON (Former NASA Astronaut; Pilot, Rocketplane Incorporated): Well, it takes us from Midwestern values. I mean this is what folks here - what do we have here that we can make the most of.
MORRIS: It turns out the fuselage isn't the only thing Rocketplane is recycling. The other is way out on the high plains of western Oklahoma, in a place called Burns Flat.
(Soundbite of machinery)
Mr. BILL KHOURIE (Executive Director, Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority): We're in the Rocketplane XP hangar and operations hangar here at the Oklahoma spaceport.
MORRIS: Bill Khourie, the executive director of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority, swells with pride as he shows off this spaceport. Though this facility is more Cold War than star wars. Until 1970, it was a Strategic Air Command base for B-52 bombers.
Now this cavernous old hangar sits empty except for a mock-up of the Rocketplane XP. Still Khourie says the site has what other states would envy - a license to operate a commercial spaceport and an immense three-mile long runway suitable for landing wheeled spacecraft.
Mr. KHOURIE: This is a real industry. It's here, and it's operational. And it's a matter of who wants to be out there and wants to do it first, because it's going to happen.
MORRIS: But it may not happen here, at least not first. A competition called the Ansari X Prize ignited the space tourism industry two and a half years ago when Burt Rutan's spaceship won, proved it could take a person up 62 miles, which is technically the edge of space and back safely twice in a week.
Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Bradson licensed Rutan's technology, launched Virgin Galactic and started marketing space tourism.
(Soundbite of advertising)
Unidentified Man: A travel between space trips promised to be the most intense and wonderful experiences that our passengers have ever had.
Mr. JEFF FOUST (Space Industry Consultant): What you're seeing really is a new industry emerged - populated primarily by new companies that hasn't been involved in the space industry before now.
MORRIS: Space industry consultant Jeff Foust says half a dozen companies had sprung up to serve this market, which could conceivably grow to thousands of yearly customers by the end of the next decade. For now, advance seats go for around $200,000 a pop. Who's buying? People like Rita Anderson.
Ms. RITA ANDERSON: I tend to be an adventurer-type. I like high-end things, world-class events.
MORRIS: Sitting in front of a bust of Amelia Earnhart in the 99s Museum of Women Pilots in Oklahoma City, Anderson says she knows that the 45-minute rocket-plane flight won't take her to outer space. At 62 miles, you could still see the Burns Flat runway at least on GoogleEarth. She knows she'll be strapped in her seat throughout the three minutes of weightlessness at the apex of the flight. Still at nearly 70 years old, Anderson calls the opportunity awesome.
Ms. ANDERSON: I can picture myself getting in that space plane at Burns Flat and saying follow me, follow me. And it's just so thrilling.
MORRIS: Well, everyone associated with Rocketplane seems to share Anderson's excitement. The project itself is only one quarter done. Still the company maintains it'll test its craft in two years - fly paying passengers by the end of 2009, and possibly claim a space in aerospace history by helping usher in a new era of routine space travel.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.