China Plans to Build World's Biggest Tourist Spacecraft

The ambition is huge; the details are scant.

China wants to get in on the space tourism game, and their commercial ship is going to be the biggest in the world. If it ever gets off the ground, that is.

China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology announced plans at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, according to New Scientist.

It will look like a cross between a jet plane and a rocket, and will blast off under its own power into the near regions of space and then manoeuvre back down to Earth. The spaceship will be reusable up to 50 times.

The plan is to first build a smaller version that will take five passengers up 100 kilometers, and then scale up to a much bigger craft that will carry 20 passengers per flight up to 130 kilometers. Prices are estimated at $200,000 to $250,000 a seat, which would make them competitive with Virgin Galactic and other private space tour offerings.

The Chinese company, which is backed by the state government, says flight tests will be completed within two years.

Will it happen?

Roger Launius of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum tells New Scientist he’s skeptical, based on scant technical details provided by the conference paper and presentation.

“The most unusual part is the belief that they can send up to 20 people to 100 kilometres and more on a rocket without a mother ship and no staging, reusing it some 50 times. It’s not explained how that will be accomplished. And the fact that they think they can test fly in the next 2 years is remarkable.”

The Chinese space program is both ambitious and limited. In 2003, China became only the third country ever to launch astronauts into space using homegrown technology.

China launched its second space lab into orbit last month, and hopes to send one up that rivals the International Space Station by 2022. It also launched the world’s first quantum satellite earlier this year.

When is comes to the commercial space race, China’s imperial ambitions may come as an advantage. With state backing, China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology may be able to afford to take bigger financial risks than purely private enterprises like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace.

Still, China is scrambling to catch up with the United States and Russia in space technology, and is hampered by a lack of international cooperation. America has blocked China from collaboration with the International Space Station and NASA.

So is this mega space plane the real deal or wishful thinking? Time will tell, but don’t be surprised if this big idea just falls off the radar before long.