PARIS • The European Union's industry commissioner yesterday blasted companies' plans to offer space flights to tourists, calling them a gimmick for the privileged elite.
"It's only for the super rich, which is against my social convictions," European Commission Vice President Guenter Verheugen told Reuters.
EADS Astrium, the space division of the European aerospace consortium, said this week it planned to build a craft that would be able to carry a handful of tourists on brief forays outside the earth's atmosphere from 2012.
Other groups are considering similar ventures including British entrepreneur Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic service expects to make its first commercial flight next year.
The EADS aircraft, about the size of an executive jet, would be able to carry four passengers around 100 kilometres from the earth, where they would be able to experience about three minutes of weightlessness and see the curve of the earth.
At a price of 150,000 to 200,000 euros ($199,500-$265,900), the experience would be reserved for a small number of rich sensation-seekers, although as many as 15,000 passengers a year are expected to be ready to pay for a trip by 2020, according to consultants Fultron.
That would represent a considerable expansion from the tiny number of truly rich adventurers so far who have been willing to pay as much as $20 million for a place on a Russian Soyuz rocket to see space.
Verheugen, a German centre-left politician who holds the industry and enterprise portfolio within the EU Commission, said the new space race left him uneasy.
"I have strong reservations," he said. "It will always be a very privileged type of tourism."
EADS Astrium expects to build about five craft a year and thinks it can capture about 30 percent of the market. The EADS Astrium project will be mainly privately financed, and Astrium will not operate flights itself, but Verheugen made it clear that he did not believe it deserved assistance from governments or the European Union. "I have no sympathy for this. It deserves no support."
Verheugen was speaking at the margins of an awards ceremony to commend EADS's Airbus unit for its efforts to reduce carbon emissions from its ordinary aircraft, a coincidence that underlined another potential concern about space tourism.
At the same ceremony, Louis Gallois, head of Airbus and co-head of EADS, declined to answer a question on the apparent paradox of a company trying to cut emissions in one area while investing in a project to blast rich travellers into space.