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Trip to space in aisle 4

A discount supermarket chain in Austria is selling trips to space.

Four-year-old Lene wears a protective filter as she watches the transit of Venus in front of the sun in Vienna, June 8, 2004. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

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."