Trip to space in aisle 4

VIENNA, Austria — A discount supermarket where Austrians might usually pick up a bargain bag of frozen Wiener schnitzel has a new offering: sub-orbital space flights.

But will customers ever get off the ground, let alone exit the stratosphere?

On Thursday the Austrian wing of Penny Markt, a subsidiary of the German REWE retail group, began offering to take bookings for flights on an as-yet imaginary spacecraft, which it says should start service at the end of 2011. The price: 210,000 euros ($314,000) a head. The store's customary promise to reimburse any savings found elsewhere applies, should there be any quibbles.

The promise: After five days training, the purchaser, and perhaps four others, could be taken to a "spaceport" in Oklahoma to board the "Rocketplane XP" and fly to a height of 12,000 meters (40,000 feet) before being "catapulted into the air" by booster rockets to a height of 105,000 meters. The engines would then be cut and seatbelts "loosened by a computer" to allow those on board to savour weightlessness for five or 10 minutes.

During this, the flight's apex, "the craft will rotate, allowing you to experience both the earth and the blackness of space with hundreds of bright points of light." It will then, the promotional copy says, glide down to 9,000 meters and land again in Oklahoma under jet propulsion. After a warm welcome back at the spaceport, a post-flight party will see the award of the "absolutely unique and much-sought-after 'Civilian Cosmonaut Wings.'"

For legal reasons, eager travellers can't just pick up tickets at the checkout.

"If anyone shows up and says they want to book a flight, I will call them personally," said Martin Fast, director of Penny Markt Austria's travel division. He expects to fulfill the orders of any paying customers.  "Flights go to and from Oklahoma, and each and every passenger will get a flight."

The space offer coincides with the launch of the Penny Markt travel agency. Fast admitted he would not be disappointed with the publicity generated: "It illustrates our philosophy, which is to offer very reasonable and cheap products, but also some very special products." In the store, this manifests itself in offbeat items like 100-piece miniature power drill sets, inflatable canoes and paddling pools with built-in trampolines.

So far, no calls: A two day bus trip to Budapest for 75 euros ($112) and a week-long trip to Tenerife for 599 euros ($900) are proving more popular.

But, in any case, catching a flight according with Penny Markt's schedule might not be quite as straightforward as Fast makes out.

"I would rather they had said 2012 rather than 2011," said Chuck Lauer, co-founder of Rocketplane Global, which hopes to build and run the service. "We lost a whole year because of the financial crisis. We are still in the engineering and development phase."

"The past two years have not been kind in terms of raising hundreds of millions of dollars," Lauer added. About $200 million should be enough to make Rocketplane Global's plans a reality, he said, adding that negotiations with an interested investor are "ongoing" and would be announced publicly if they proved fruitful. Would-be space cadets, he said, are so far proving forgiving of delays.

It is a hopeful sign for the nascent space tourism market, Lauer said, that in July Abu Dhabi's government investment company paid $280 million for a third of rival space tourism operator Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson. He admitted, however: "There is kind of a David and Goliath situation going on."

Virgin Galactic said it has taken in excess of 300 bookings, while Lauer said Rocketplane has so far signed up under 30. The 20,000 euro ($30,000) deposit "goes into a protected escrow account" Lauer said, and to bank the money, "We'd have to be confirming flight dates by 2012."

Some scoff at Penny Markt customers' prospects of even getting airborne. "I saw the story and laughed my head off," said Scott Cooper, a reporter at the Oklahoma Gazette who has been following Rocketplane's activities since it first landed in Oklahoma. "In the 10 years they've been going they have never built a ship, and they have broken promise after promise after promise."

Among other potential sore points for Oklahomans is Rocketplane's $18 million in tax credits from Oklahoma state agencies since 2004 on the promise the company would bring jobs to the state. "I went to their headquarters near the airport in March and found they were locked up. The company had been packed up and gone," Cooper said.

Lauer confirmed Rocketplane received the $18 million tax incentive, which he said was sold to a bank for $12.7 million in cash, which he says was spent on developing Rocketplane XP. He also confirms that it moved its headquarters from Oklahoma to Green Bay, Wisconsin, early this year. Nevertheless, he said, "We are committed to building and operating our vehicles from Oklahoma."

But Lauer also said Rocketplane was looking at a "multi-spaceport strategy" involving new ones in Hawaii and Jacksonville, Florida and maybe one in Europe. "The tourist infrastructure is already there."